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SELECTED STORIES OF 


EUDORA WELTY 

CONTAINING ALL Of 

J Curtain of Green and Other Stories 
AND The Wide Net and Other Stories 

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY 

KATHERINE ANN E_P„jQ R TER 



THE MODERN LIBRARY- NEW YORK 



Copyright, 1936, 1937. 1938, 1939, 1941, 1913- ^>7 Fudoia Welty 


Library of Congress Catalog Card Niimbei 5t-99^’9 

This edition published by aiiangcmcni with 
Haicouit, Brace and Company 


All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce 
this book or portions thereof in any form 


Random House is tiik publisher of The Modern Library 

BENNETT A. CERF • DONALD S KLOPFFR * ROBERT K. HAAS 
Manufactured in the United States of America 
ByH Wolff 



ACKNOWLEDGMENT 


FOR PERMISSION to reprint the stories in this 
volume the author wishes to thank the editors of 
the Southern Review, the Atlantic Monthly, 
Harper* s Bazaar, Harper* s Magazine, American 
Prefaces, Tomorrow, the Yale Review, Manu- 
script, the P'lairie Schooner, Decision, and New 
Directions 




PUBLISHE r’S note 


The first two of Eudora Welty’s published 
books of stories — -d Curtain of Green and The 
Wide Net — SLie presented in their entirety in 
this volume of twenty-five stones. The original 
edition of A Curtain of Green (1941) was intro- 
duced with an essay on the author and her work 
by Katherine Anne Porter which is as perceptive 
and applicable today as when it was written, and 
which is included as an introduction to this 
volume. 

Miss Porter wrote, in August, 1941, that Eudora 
Welty could “very well become a master of the 
short story," that there was “nothing to hinder 
her from writing novels if she wishes or believes 
she can." Since that date, in addition to The 
Wide Net (1943), Miss Welty has published a 
novel, Delta Wedding (1946), a volume of inter- 
related stories. The Golden Apples (1949); and 
two short novels, The Robber Bridegroom (1942) 
and The Ponder Heart (1954). All of these books 
have confirmed and extended the basis of Miss 
Porter's prediction that A Curtain of Green, 
“splendid beginning that it is ... is only the 
beginning." 




CONTENTS 


Introduction by Katherine anne porter xi 
A CURTAIN OF GREEN 

LILY DAW AND THE THREE LADIES g 
A PIECE OF NEWS 2 1 
PETRIFIED MAN §2 
THE KEY 56 

KEELA, THE OUTCAST INDIAN MAIDEN 74 

WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O. 89 

THE WHISTLE 1 1 1 

THE HITCH-HIKERS 1 2 1 

A MEMORY 147 

CLYTIE 158 

OLD MR. MARBLEHALL 179 

FLOWERS FOR MARJORIE 192 

A CURTAIN OF GREEN 209 

A VISIT OF CHARITY 220 

DEATH OF A TRAVELING SALESMAN 2 g 1 

POWERHOUSE 254 

A WORN PATH 275 



CONTENTS Continued 


THE WIDE NET 

FIRST LOVE 3 
THE WIDE NET 34 
A STILL MOMENT 73 
ASPHODEL 95 
THE WINDS 114 
THE PURPLE HAT 1 4 1 
LIVVIE 153 


AT THE LANDING 


178 




INTRODUCTION 


CZy RiENDS of US both first brought 
Eudora Welty to visit me three years ago in Louisi- 
ana. It was hot midsummer, they had driven over 
from Mississippi, her home state, and we spent 
a pleasant evening together talking in the cool 
old house with all the windows open. Miss Welty 
sat listening, as she must have done a great deal 
of listening on many such occasions. She was and 
is a quiet, tranquil-looking, modest girl, and un- 
like the young Englishman of the story, she has 
something to be modest about, as this collection 
of short stories proves. 

She considers her personal history as hardly 
worth mentioning, a fact in itself surprising 
enough, since a vivid personal career of fabulous 
ups and downs, hardships and strokes of luck, 
travels in far countries, spiritual and intellectual 
exile, defensive flight, homesick return with a 
determined groping for native roots, and a con- 
fusion of contradictory jobs have long been the 


XI 




xii Introduction 

mere conventions of an American author’s life. 
Miss Welty was born and brought up in Jackson, 
Mississippi, where her father, now dead, was presi- 
dent of a Southern insurance company. Family 
life was cheerful and thriving; she seems to have 
got on excellently with both her parents and her 
two brothers. Education, in the Southern man- 
ner with daughters, was continuous, indulgent, 
and precisely as serious as she chose to make it. 
She went from school in Mississippi to the Uni- 
versity of Wisconsin, thence to Columbia, New 
York, and so home again where she lives with 
her mother, among her lifelong friends and ac- 
quaintances, quite simply and amiably. She tried 
a job or two because that seemed the next thing, 
and did some publicity and newspaper work; but 
as she had no real need of a job, she gave up the 
notion and settled down to writing. 

She loves music, listens to a great deal of it, all 
kinds; grows flowers very successfully, and re- 
marks that she is “underfoot locally,’’ meaning 
that she has a normal amount of social life. Nor- 
mal social life in a medium-sized Southern town 
can become a pretty absorbing occupation, and 
the only comment her friends make when a new 
story appears is, “Why, Eudora, when did you 
write that?” Not how, or even why, just when. 
They see her about so much, what time has she 
for writing? Yet she spends an immense amount 



Introduction 


Xlll 


of time at it. “I haven’t a literary life at all,” she 
wrote once, “not much of a confession, maybe. 
But I do feel that the people and things I love 
are of a true and human world, and there is no 
clutter about them. ... I would not understand 
a literary life.” 

We can do no less than dismiss that topic as 
casually as she does. Being the child of her place 
and time, profiting perhaps without being aware 
of it by the cluttered experiences, foreign travels, 
and disorders of the generation immediately pre- 
ceding her, she will never have to go away and 
live among the Eskimos, or Mexican Indians; 
she need not follow a war and smell death to feel 
herself alive: she knows about death already. She 
shall not need even to live in New York in order 
to feel that she is having the kind of experience, 
the sense of “life” proper to a serious author. 
She gets her right nourishment from the source 
natural to her— her experience so far has been 
quite enough for her and of precisely the right 
kind. She began writing spontaneously when she 
was a child, being a born writer; she continued 
without any plan for a profession, without any 
particular encouragement, and, as it proved, not 
needing any. For a good number of years she be 
lieved she was going to be a painter, and painted 
quite earnestly while she wrote without much 
effort. 



XIV 


Introduction 


Nearly all the Southern writers I know were 
early, omnivorous, insatiable readers, and Miss 
Welty runs reassuringly true to this pattern. She 
had at arm’s reach the typical collection o£ books 
which existed as a matter of course in a certain 
kind of Southern family, so that she had read the 
ancient Greek and Roman poetry, history and 
fable, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, the eighteenth- 
century English and the nineteenth-century 
French novelists, with a dash of Tolstoy and 
Dostoievsky, before she realized what she tvas 
reading. When she first discovered contemporary 
literature, she was just the right age to find first 
W. B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf in the air around 
her; but always, from the beginning until now, 
she loved folk tales, fairy tales, old legends, and 
she likes to listen to the songs and stories of peo- 
ple who live in old communities whose culture 
is recollected and bequeathed orally. 

She has never studied the writing craft in any 
college. She has never belonged to a literary 
group, and until after her first collection was 
ready to be published she had never discussed 
with any colleague or older artist any problem 
of her craft. Nothing else that I know about her 
could be more satisfactory to me than this; it 
seems to me immensely right, the very way a 
young artist should grow, with pride and inde- 
pendence and the courage really to face out the 



Introduction xv 

individual struggle; to make and correct mistakes 
and take the consequences of them, to stand firmly 
on his own feet in the end. I believe in the right- 
ness of Miss Welty’s instinctive knowledge that 
writing cannot be taught, but only learned, and 
learned by the individual in his own way, at his 
own pace and in his own time, for the process 
of mastering the medium is part of a cellular 
growth in a most complex organism; it is a way 
of life and a mode of being which cannot be di- 
vided from the kind of human creature you were 
the day you were born, and only in obeying the 
law of this singular being can the artist know his 
true directions and the right ends for him. 

Miss Welty escaped, by miracle, the whole cor- 
rupting and destructive influence of the contem- 
porary, organized tampering with young and 
promising talents by professional teachers who- 
are rather monotonously divided into two major 
sorts: those theorists who are incapable of pro- 
ducing one passable specimen of the art they pro- 
fess to teach; or good, sometimes first-rate, artists, 
who are humanly unable to resist forming dis- 
ciples and imitators among their students. It is 
all well enough to say that, of this second class, 
the able talent will throw off the master’s influ- 
ence and strike out for himself. Such influence 
has merely added new obstacles to an already 
difficult road. Miss Welty escaped also a militant 



XVI 


Introduction 


social consciousness, in the current radical-intel- 
lectual sense, she never professed Communism, 
and she has not expressed, except implicitly, any 
attitude at all on the state of politics or the condi- 
tion of society. But there is an ancient system of 
ethics, an unanswerable, indispensable moral law, 
on which she is grounded firmly, and this, it 
would seem to me, is ample domain enough; these 
laws have never been the peculiar property of any 
party or creed or nation, they relate to that true 
and human world of which the artist is a living 
part; and when he dissociates himself from it 
in favor of a set of political, which is to say, in- 
human, rules, he cuts himself away from his 
proper society— living men. 

There exist documents of political and social 
theory which belong, if not to poetry, certainly 
to the department of humane letters. They arc 
reassuring statements of the great hopes and dear- 
est faiths of mankind and they are acts of high 
imagination. But all working, practical political 
systems, even those professing to originate in 
moral grandeur, are based upon and operate 
by contempt of human life and the individual 
fate; in accepting any one of them and shaping 
his mind and work to that mold, the artist de- 
humanizes himself, unfits himself for the practise 
of any art. 



Introduction xvii 

Not being in a hurry, Miss Welty was past 
twenty-six years when she offered her first story, 
“The Death of a Traveling Salesman,” to the 
editor of a little magazine unable to pay, for she 
could not believe that anyone would buy a story 
from her; the magazine was Manuscript, the edi- 
tor John Rood, and he accepted it gladly. Rather 
surprised, Miss Welty next tried the Southern 
Review, where she met with a great welcome and 
the enduring partisanship of Albert Erskine, who 
regarded her as his personal discovery. The story 
was “A Piece of News” and it was followed by 
others published in the Southern Review, the At- 
lantic Monthly, and Harper’s Bazaar. 

She has, then, never been neglected, never un- 
appreciated, and she feels simply lucky about it. 
She wrote to a friend: “When I think of Ford 
Madox Ford! You remember how you gave him 
my name and how he tried his best to find a 
publisher for my book of stories all that last year 
of his life; and he wrote me so many charming 
notes, all of his time going to his little brood of 
promising writers, the kind of thing that could 
have gone on forever. Once I read in the Saturday 
Review an article of his on the species and the 
way they were neglected by publishers, and he 
used me as the example chosen at random. He 
ended his cry with ‘What is to become of both 
branches of Anglo-Saxondom if this state of things 



xviii Introduction 

continues?’ Wasn’t that wonderful, really, and 
typical? I may have been more impressed by that 
than would other readers who knew him. I did 
not know him, but I knew it was typical. And 
here I myself have turned out to be not at all 
the martyred promising writer, but have had all 
the good luck and all the good things Ford chided 
the world for withholding from me and my kind.” 

But there is a trap lying just ahead, and all 
short-story writers know what it is— -The Novel. 
That novel which every publisher hopes to obtain 
from every short-story writer of any gifts at all, 
and who finally does obtain it, nine times out of 
ten. Already publishers have told her, “Give us 
first a novel, and then we will publish your short 
stories.” It is a special sort of trap for poets, too, 
though quite often a good poet can and does write 
a good novel. Miss Welty has tried her hand at 
novels, laboriously, dutifully, youthfully thinking 
herself perhaps in the wrong to refuse, since so 
many authoritarians have told her that was the 
next step. It is by no means the next step. She 
can very well become a master of the short story, 
there are almost perfect stories in this book. It 
is quite possible she can never write a novel, and 
there is no reason why she should. The short story 
is a special and difficult medium, and contrary 
to a widely spread popular superstition it has no 
formula that can be taught by correspondence 



Introduction 


XIX 


school. There is nothing to hinder her from writ- 
ing novels if she wishes or believes she can. I 
only say that her good gift, just as it is now, alive 
and flourishing, should not be retarded by a pen 
fectly artificial demand upon her to do the con- 
ventional thing. It is a fact that the public for 
short stories is smaller than the public for novels; 
this seems to me no good reason for depriving 
that minority. I remember a reader writing to an 
editor, complaining that he did not like collec- 
tions of short stories because, just as he had got 
himself worked into one mood or frame of mind, 
he was called upon to change to another. If that 
is an important objection, we might also apply 
it to music. We might compare the novel to a 
symphony, and a collection of short stories to a 
good concert recital. In any case, this complainant 
is not our reader, yet our reader does exist, and 
there would be more of him if more and better 
short stories were offered. 

These stories offer an extraordinary range of 
mood, pace, tone, and variety of material. The 
scene is limited to a town the author knows well; 
the farthest reaches of that scene never go beyond 
the boundaries of her own state, and many of 
the characters are of the sort that caused a Bos- 
tonian to remark that he would not care to meet 
them socially. Lily Daw is a half-witted girl in 
the grip of social forces represented by a group 



XX 


Introduction 


of earnest ladies bent on doing the best thing for 
her, no matter what the consequences. Keela, the 
Outcast Indian Maid, is a crippled little Negro 
who represents a type of man considered most 
unfortunate by W. B. Yeats: one whose experi- 
ence was more important than he, and completely 
beyond his powers of absorption. But the really 
unfortunate man in this story is the ignorant 
young white boy, who had innocently assisted at 
a wrong done the little Negro, and for a most 
complex reason, finds that no reparation is pos- 
sible, or even desirable to the victim. . . . The 
heroine of “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a terrify- 
ing case of dementia praecox. In this first group— 
for the stories may be loosely classified on three 
separate levels— the spirit is satire and the key 
grim comedy. Of these, “The Petrified Man” of- 
fers a fine clinical study of vulgarity— vulgarity 
absolute, chemically pure, exposed mercilessly to 
its final subhuman depths. Dullness, bitterness, 
rancor, self-pity, baseness of all kinds, can be most 
interesting material for a story provided these are 
not also the main elements in the mind of the 
author. There is nothing in the least vulgar or 
frustrated in Miss Welty’s mind. She has simply 
an eye and an ear sharp, shrewd, and true as a 
tuning fork. She has given to this little story all 
her wit and observation, her blistering humor 
and her just cruelty; for she has none of that slack 



Introduction 


XXI 


tolerance or sentimental tenderness toward symp- 
tomatic evils that amounts to criminal collusion 
between author and character. Her use of this 
material raises the quite awfully sordid little tale 
to a level above its natural habitat, and its realism 
seems almost to have the quality of caricature, as 
complete realism so often does. Yet, as painters 
of the grotesque make only detailed reports of 
actual living types observed more keenly than 
the average eye is capable of observing, so Miss 
Welty’s little human monsters are not really cari- 
catures at all, but individuals exactly and clearly 
presented: which is perhaps a case against realism, 
if we cared to go into it. She does better on an- 
other level— for the important reason that the 
themes are richer— in such beautiful stories as 
“Death of a Traveling Salesman,” “A Memory,” 
“A Worn Path.” Let me admit a deeply personal 
preference for this particular kind of story, where 
external act and the internal voiceless life of the 
human imagination almost meet and mingle on 
the mysterious threshold between dream and wak- 
ing, one reality refusing to admit or confirm the 
existence of the other, yet both conspiring toward 
the same end. This is not easy to accomplish, but 
it is always worth trying, and Miss Welty is so 
successful at it, it would seem her most familiar 
territory. There is no blurring at the edges, but 
evidences of an active and disciplined imagina- 



XXll 


Introduction 


tion working firmly in a strong line of continuity, 
the waking faculty of daylight reason recollecting 
and recording the crazy logic of the dream. There 
is in none of these stories any trace of autobiogra- 
phy in the prime sense, except as the author is 
omnipresent, and knows each character she writes 
about as only the artist knows the thing he has 
made, by first experiencing it in imagination. But 
perhaps in “A Memory,” one of the best stories, 
there might be something of early personal his- 
tory in the story of the child on the beach, alien- 
ated from the world of adult knowledge by her 
state of childhood, who hoped to learn the secrets 
of life by looking at everything, squaring her 
hands before her eyes to bring the observed thing 
into a frame—the gesture of one born to select, 
to arrange, to bring apparently disparate elements 
into harmony within deliberately fixed bound- 
aries. But the author is freed already in her youth 
from self-love, self-pity, self-preoccupation, that 
triple damnation of too many of the young and 
gifted, and has reached an admirable objectivity. 
In such stories as “Old Mr. Marblehall,” “Power- 
house,” “The Hitch-Hikers,” she combines an 
objective reporting with great perception of men- 
tal or emotional states, and in “Clytie” the very 
shape of madness takes place before your eyes in 
a straight account of actions and speech, the per- 



Introduction 


XXlll 


sonal appearance and habits of dress of the main 
character and her family. 

In all of these stories, varying as they do in ex- 
cellence, I find nothing false or labored, no diffu- 
sion of interest, no wavering of mood— the ap- 
proach is direct and simple in method, though 
the themes and moods are anything but simple, 
and there is even in the smallest story a sense of 
power in reserve which makes me believe firmly 
that, splendid beginning that this is, it is only the 
beginning. 

“But now that so much is being changed, is it 
not time that we should change? Could we not 
try to develop ourselves a little, slowly and grad- 
ually take upon ourselves our share in the labor 
of love? We have been spared all its hardship 
. . . we have been spoiled by easy enjoyment. 
. . . But what if we despised our successes, what 
if we began from the beginning to learn the work 
of love which has always been done for us? What 
if we were to go and become neophytes, now that 
so much is changing?” * 

Katherine Anne Porter 

August ip, ip4i 

* The Journal of My Othe? Self, by Rainer Maria Rilke Trans- 
lated by M D. Herter Norton and John Linton. Published by 
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 




A CURTAIN OF GREEN 


AND OTHER STORIES 

TO 

DIARMUID RUSSELL 




LILY DAW AND THE 
THREE LADIES 


/ I'RS. WATTS and Mrs. Carson 
were both in the post office in Victory when the 
letter came from the Ellisville Institute for the 
Feeble-Minded of Mississippi. Aimee Slocum, 
with her hand still full of mail, ran out in front 
and handed it straight to Mrs. Watts, and they all 
three read it together. Mrs. Watts held it taut be- 
tween her pink hands, and Mrs. Carson under- 
scored each line slowly with her thimbled finger. 
Everybody else in the post office wondered what 
was up now. 

“What will Lily say,” beamed Mrs. Carson at 
last, “when we tell her we’re sending her to Ellis- 
ville!” 

“She’ll be tickled to death,” said Mrs. Watts, 
and added in a guttural voice to a deaf lady, 
“Lily Daw’s getting in at Ellisville!” 

“Don’t you all dare go off and tell Lily without 



4 A Curtain of Green 

me!” called Aimee Slocum, trotting back to finish 
putting up the mail. 

“Do you suppose they’ll look after her down 
there?” Mrs. Carson began to carry on a conversa- 
tion with a group of Baptist ladies waiting in the 
post office. She was the Baptist preacher’s wife. 

“I’ve always heard it was lovely down there, 
but crowded,” said one. 

“Lily lets people walk over her so,” said an- 
other. 

“Last night at the tent show—” said another, 
and then popped her hand over her mouth. 

“Don’t mind me, I know there are such things 
in the world,” said Mrs. Carson, looking down 
and fingering the tape measure which hung over 
her bosom. 

“Oh, Mrs. Carson. Well, anyway, last night at 
the tent show, why, the man was just before mak- 
ing Lily buy a ticket to get in.” 

“A ticket!” 

“Till my husband went up and explained she 
wasn’t bright, and so did everybody else.” 

The ladies all clucked their tongues. 

“Oh, it was a very nice show,” said the lady 
who had gone. “And Lily acted so nice. She was 
a perfect lady— just set in her seat and stared.” 

“Oh, she can be a lady— she can be,” said Mrs. 
Carson, shaking her head and turning her eyes 
up. “That’s just what breaks your heart.” 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 5 

“Yes’m, she kept her eyes on— what’s that thing 
makes all the commotion?— the xylophone,” said 
the lady. “Didn’t turn her head to the right or 
to the left the whole time. Set in front of me.” 

“The point is, what did she do after the show?” 
asked Mrs. Watts practically. “Lily has gotten so 
she is very mature for her age.” 

“Oh, Etta!” protested Mrs. Carson, looking at 
her wildly for a moment. 

“And that’s hotv come we are sending her to 
Ellisville,” finished Mrs. Watts. 

“I’m ready, you all,” said Aimee Slocum, run- 
ning out with white powder all over her face. 
“Mail’s up. Tdon’t know how good it’s up.” 

“Well, of course, I do hope it’s for the best,” 
said several of the other ladies. They did not go 
at once to take their mail out of their boxes; 
they felt a little left out. 

The three women stood at the foot of the water 
tank. 

“To find Lily is a different thing,” said Aimee 
Slocum. 

“Where in the wide world do you suppose she’d 
be?” It was Mrs. Watts who was carrying the 
letter. 

“I don’t see a sign of her either on this side 
of the street or on the other side,” Mrs. Carson 
declared as they walked along. 



G 


A Curlain of Green 

Ed Newton was stringing Redbird school tab- 
lets on the wire across the store. 

“If you’re after Lily, she come in here while 
ago and tole me she was fixin’ to git married,” 
he said. 

“Ed Newton!” cried the ladies all together, 
clutching one another. Mrs. Watts began to fan 
herself at once with the letter from Ellisville. 
She wore widow’s black, and the least thing made 
her hot. 

“Why she is not. She’s going to Ellisville, Ed,” 
said Mrs. Carson gently. “Mrs. Watts and I and 
Aimee Slocum are paying her way out of our own 
pockets. Besides, the boys of Victory are on their 
honor. Lily’s not going to get married, that’s just 
an idea she’s got in her head.” 

“More power to you, ladies,” said Ed Newton, 
spanking himself with a tablet. 

When they came to the bridge over the railroad 
tracks, there was Estelle Mabers, sitting on a rail. 
She was slowly drinking an orange Ne-Hi. 

“Have you seen Lily?” they asked her. 

“I’m supposed to be out here watching for her 
now,” said the Mabers girl, as though she weren’t 
there yet. “But for Jewel-Jewel says Lily come 
in the store while ago and picked out a two- 
ninety-eight hat and wore it off. Jewel wants to 
swap her something else for it.” 


Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 7 

“Oh, Estelle, Lily says she’s going to get mar- 
ried!” cried Aimee Slocum. 

“Well, I declare,” said Estelle; she never un- 
derstood anything. 

Loralee Adkins came riding by in her Willys- 
Knight, tooting the horn to find out what they 
were talking about. 

Aimee threw up her hands and ran out into the 
street. “Loralee, Loralee, you got to ride us up 
to Lily Daws’. She’s up yonder fixing to get mar- 
ried!” 

“Hop in, my land!” 

“Well, that just goes to show you right now,” 
said Mrs. Watts, groaning as she was helped into 
the back seat. “What we’ve got to do is persuade 
Lily it will be nicer to go to Ellisville.” 

“Just to think!” 

While they rode around the corner Mrs. Carson 
was going on in her sad voice, sad as the soft 
noises in the hen house at twilight. “We buried 
Lily’s poor defenseless mother. We gave Lily all 
her food and kindling and every stitch she had 
on. Sent her to Sunday school to learn the Lord’s 
teachings, had her baptized a Baptist. And when 
her old father commenced beating her and tried 
to cut her head off with the butcher knife, why, 
we went and took her away from him and gave 
her a place to stay.” 



8 A Curtain of Green 

The painlless frame house with all the weather 
vanes was three stories high in places and had 
yellow and violet stained-glass windows in front 
and gingerbread around the porch. It leaned 
steeply to one side, toward the railroad, and the 
front steps were gone. The car full of ladies drew 
up under the cedar tree. 

“Now Lily’s almost grown up,” Mrs. Carson 
continued. “In fact, she’s grown,” she concluded, 
getting out. 

“Talking about getting married,” said Mrs. 
Watts disgustedly. “Thanks, Loralee, you run on 
home.” 

They climbed over the dusty zinnias onto the 
porch and walked through the open door without 
knocking. 

“There certainly is always a funny smell in this 
house. I say it every time I come,” said Aimee 
Slocum. 

Lily was there, in the dark of the hall, kneeling 
on the floor by a small open trunk. 

When she saw them she put a zinnia in her 
mouth, and held still. 

“Hello, Lily,” said Mrs. Carson reproachfully. 

“Hello,” said Lily. In a minute she gave a suck 
on the zinnia stem that sounded exactly like a 
jay bird. There she sat, wearing a petticoat for 
a dress, one of the things Mrs. Carson kept after 
her about. Her milky-yellow hair streamed freely 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 9 

down from under a new hat. You could see the 
wavy scar on her throat if you knew it was there. 

Mrs. Carson and Mrs. Watts, the two fattest, 
sat in the double rocker. Aimee Slocum sat on 
the wire chair donated from the drugstore that 
burned. 

“Well, what are you doing, Lily?” asked Mrs. 
Watts, who led the rocking. 

Lily smiled. 

The trunk was old and lined with yellow and 
brown paper, with an asterisk pattern showing 
in darker circles and rings. Mutely the ladies in- 
dicated to each other that they did not know 
where in the world it had come from. It was 
empty except for two bars of soap and a green 
washcloth, which Lily was now trying to arrange 
in the bottom. 

“Go on and tell us what you’re doing, Lily,” 
said Aimee Slocum. 

“Packing, silly,” said Lily. 

“Where are you going?” 

“Going to get married, and I bet you wish you 
was me now,” said Lily. But shyness overcame her 
suddenly, and she popped the zinnia back into 
her mouth. 

“Talk to me, dear,” said Mrs. Carson. “Tell 
old Mrs. Carson why you want to get married.” 

“No,” said Lily, after a moment’s hesitation. 

“Well, we’ve thought of something that will 



lO 


A Curtain of Green 

be so much nicer,” said Mrs. Carson. “Why don’t 
you go to Ellisville!” 

“Won’t that be lovely?” said Mrs. Watts. “Good- 
ness, yes.” 

“It’s a lovely place,” said Aimee Slocum un- 
certainly. 

“You’ve got bumps on your face,” said Lily. 

“Aimee, dear, you stay out of this, if you don’t 
mind,” said Mrs. Carson anxiously. “I don’t know 
what it is comes over Lily when you come around 
her,” 

Lily stared at Aimee Slocum meditati-'ely. 

“There! Wouldn’t you like to go to Ellisville 
now?” asked Mrs. Carson. 

“No’m,” said Lily. 

“Why not?” All the ladies leaned down toward 
her in impressive astonishment. 

“ ’Cause I’m goin’ to get married,” said Lily. 

“Well, and who aie you going to marry, dear?” 
asked Mrs. Watts. She knew how to pin people 
down and make them deny what they’d already 
said. 

Lily bit her lip and began to smile. She reached 
into the trunk and held up both cakes of soap 
and wagged them. 

“Tell us,” challenged Mrs. Watts. “Who you’re 
going to marry, now.” 

“A man last night.” 

There was a gasp from each lady. The possible 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies ii 

reality of a lover descended suddenly like a sum- 
mer hail over their heads. Mrs. Watts stood up 
and balanced herself. 

“One of those show fellows! A musician!” she 
cried. 

Lily looked up in admiration. 

“Did he— did he do anything to you?” In the 
long run, it was still only Mrs. Watts who could 
take charge. 

“Oh, yes’m,” said Lily. She patted the cakes of 
soap fastidiously with the tips of her small fingers 
and tucked them in with the washcloth. 

“What?” demanded Aimee Slocum, rising up 
and tottering before her scream. “What?” she 
called out in the hall. 

“Don’t ask her what,” said Mrs. Carson, com- 
ing up behind. “Tell me, Lily— just yes or no- 
are you the same as you were?” 

“He had a red coat,” said Lily graciously. “He 
took little sticks and went ping-pong! ding-dong!’” 

“Oh, I think I’m going to faint,” said Aimee 
Slocum, but they said, “No, you’re not.” 

“The xylophone!” cried Mrs. Watts. “The xylo- 
phone player! Why, the coward, he ought to be 
run out of town on a rail!” 

“Out of town? He is out of town, by now,” 
cried Aimee. “Can’t you read?— the sign in the 
cafe— Victory on the ninth, Como on the tenth? 
He’s in Como. Como!” 



IS A Curtain of Green 

“All right! We’ll bring him back!” cried Mrs. 
Watts. “He can’t get away from me!” 

“Hush,” said Mrs. Carson. “I don’t think it’s 
any use following that line of reasoning at all. It’s 
better in the long run for him to be gone out of 
our lives for good and all. That kind of a man. 
He was after Lily’s body alone and he wouldn’t 
ever in this world make the poor little thing 
happy, even if we went out and forced him to 
marry her like he ought— at the point of a gun.” 

“Still—” began Aimee, her eyes widening. 

“Shut up,” said Mrs. Watts. “Mrs. Carson, 
you’re right, I expect.” 

“This is my hope chest— see?” said Lily politely 
in the pause that followed. “You haven’t even 
looked at it. I’ve already got soap and a washrag. 
And I have my hat— on. What are you all going 
to give me?” 

“Lily,” said Mrs. Watts, starting over, “we’ll 
give you lots of gorgeous things if you’ll only go 
to Ellisville instead of getting married.” 

“What will you give me?” asked Lily. 

“I’ll give you a pair of hemstitched pillow- 
cases,” said Mrs. Carson. 

“I’ll give you a big caramel cake,” said Mrs. 
Watts. 

“I’ll give you a souvenir from Jackson— a little 
toy bank,” said Aimee Slocum. “Now will 
you go?” 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 13 

“No,” said Lily. 

“I’ll give you a pretty little Bible with your 
name on it in real gold,” said Mrs. Carson. 

“What if I was to give you a pink crepe de 
Chine brassiere with adjustable shoulder straps?” 
asked Mrs. Watts grimly. 

“Oh, Etta.” 

“Well, she needs it,” said Mrs. Watts. “What 
would they think if she ran all over Ellisville in 
a petticoat looking like a Fiji?” 

“I wish I could go to Ellisville,” said Aimee 
Slocum luringly. 

“What will they have for me down there?” 
asked Lily softly. 

“Oh! lots of things. You’ll have baskets to 
weave, I expect. . . .” Mrs. Carson looked 
vaguely at the others. 

“Oh, yes indeed, they will let you make all 
sorts of baskets,” said Mrs. Watts; then her voice 
too trailed off. 

“No’m, I’d rather get married,” said Lily. 

“Lily Daw! Now that’s just plain stubborn- 
ness!” cried Mrs. Watts. “You almost said you’d 
go and then you took it back!” 

“We’ve all asked God, Lily,” said Mrs. Carson 
finally, “and God seemed to tell us— Mr. Carson, 
too— that the place where you ought to be, so as 
to be happy, was Ellisville.” 

Lily looked reverent, but still stubborn. 



14 /i Curtain of Green 

"We’ve really just got to get her there— now!” 
sci'eamed Aiinee Slocum all at once. “Suppose—! 
She can’t stay here!” 

"Oh, no, no, no,” said Mrs. Carson hurriedly. 
“We mustn’t think that.” 

They sat sunken in despair. 

"Could I Lake my hope chest— to go to Ellis- 
ville?” asked Lily shyly, looking at them sidewise. 

“Why, yes,” said Mrs. Carson blankly. 

Silently they rose once more to their feet. 

“Oh, if I could just take my hope chest!” 

“All the time it was just her hope chest,” Aimee 
whispered. 

Mrs. Watts struck her palms together. “It’s set- 
tled!” 

“Praise the fathers,” murmured Mrs. Carson. 

Lily looked up at them, and her eyes gleamed. 
She cocked her head and spoke out in a proud 
imitation of someone— someone utterly unknown. 

“O.K.-Toots!” 

The ladies had been nodding and smiling and 
backing away toward the door. 

“I think I’d better stay,” said Mrs. Carson, stop- 
ping in her tracks. “Where— where could she have 
learned that terrible expression?” 

“Pack up,” said Mrs. Watts. “Lily Daw is leav- 
ing for Ellisville on Number One.” 

In the station the train was puffing. Nearly 
everyone in Victory was hanging around waiting 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 15 

for it to leave. The Victory Civic Band had as- 
sembled without any orders and was scattered 
through the crowd. Ed Newton gave false signals 
to start on his bass horn. A crate full of baby 
chickens got loose on the platform. Everybody 
wanted to see Lily all dressed up, but Mrs. Carson 
and Mrs. Watts had sneaked her into the train 
from the other side of the tracks. 

The two ladies were going to travel as far as 
Jackson to help Lily change trains and be sure 
she went in the right direction. 

Lily sat between them on the plush seat with 
her hair combed and pinned up into a knot un- 
der a small blue hat which was Jewel’s exchange 
for the pretty one. She wore a traveling dress 
made out of part of Mrs. Watts’s last summer’s 
mourning. Pink straps glowed through. She had 
a purse and a Bible and a warm cake in a box, 
all in her lap. 

Aimee Slocum had been getting the outgoing 
mail stamped and bundled. She stood in the aisle 
of the coach now, tears shaking from her eyes. 

“Good-bye, Lily,” she said. She was the one 
who felt things. 

“Good-bye, silly,” said Lily. 

“Oh, dear, I hope they get our telegram to meet 
her in Ellisville'” Aimee cried sorrowfully, as she 
thought how far away it was. “And it was so hard 
to get it all in ten words, too.” 



i6 A Curtain of Green 

“Get off, Aimee, before the train starts and you 
break your neck,” said Mrs. Watts, all settled and 
waving her dressy fan gaily. “I declare, it’s so hot, 
as soon as we get a few miles out of town I’m 
going to slip my corset down.” 

“Oh, Lily, don’t cry down there. Just be good, 
and do what they tell you— it’s all because they 
love you.” Aimee drew her mouth down. She 
was backing away, down the aisle. 

Lily laughed. She pointed across Mrs. Carson’s 
bosom out the window toward a man. He had 
stepped off the train and just stood there, by him- 
self. He was a stranger and wore a cap. 

“Look,” she said, laughing softly through her 
fingers. 

“Don’t—look,” said Mrs. Carson very distinctly, 
as if, out of all she had ever spoken, she would 
impress these two solemn words upon Lily’s soft 
little brain. She added, “Don’t look at anything 
dll you get to Ellisville.” 

Outside, Aimee Slocum was crying so hard she 
almost ran into the stranger. He wore a cap and 
was short and seemed to have on perfume, if such 
a thing could be. 

“Could you tell me, madam,” he said, “where 
a little lady lives in this burg name of Miss Lily 
Daw?” He lifted his cap— and he had red hair. 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 17 

“What do you want to know for?” Aimee asked 
before she knew it. 

“Talk louder,” said the stranger. He almost 
whispered, himself. 

“She’s gone away— she’s gone to Ellisville!” 

“Gone?” 

“Gone to Ellisville!” 

“Well, I like that!” The man stuck out his bot- 
tom lip and puffed till his hair jumped. 

“What business did you have with Lily?” cried 
Aimee suddenly. 

“We was only going to get married, that’s all,” 
said the man. 

Aimee Slocum started to scream in front of all 
those people. She almost pointed to the long black 
box she saw lying on the ground at the man’s 
feet. Then she jumped back in fright. 

“The xylophone! The xylophone!” she cried, 
looking back and forth from the man to the hiss- 
ing train. Which was more terrible? The bell be- 
gan to ring hollowly, and the man was talking. 

“Did you say Ellisville? That in the state of 
Mississippi?” Like lightning he had pulled out a 
red notebook entitled, “Permanent Facts 2 c Data.” 
He wrote down something. “I don’t hear well.” 

Aimee nodded her head up and down, and 
circled around him. 

Under “Ellis-Ville Miss” he was drawing a line; 
now he was flicking it with two little marks. 



i8 A Curtain of Green 

“Maybe she didn’t say she would. Maybe she said 
she wouldn’t.” He suddenly laughed very loudly, 
after the way he had whispered. Aimee jumped 
back. “Women!— Well, if we play anywheres near 
Ellisville, Miss., in the future I may look her up 
and I may not,” he said. 

The bass horn sounded the true signal for the 
band to begin. White steam rushed out of the 
engine. Usually the train stopped for only a min- 
ute in Victory, but the engineer knew Lily from 
waving at her, and he knew this was her big day. 

“Wait!” Aimee Slocum did scream. “Wait, mis- 
ter! I can get her for you. Wait, Mister Engineer! 
Don’t go!” 

Then there she was back on the train, scream- 
ing in Mrs. Carson’s and Mrs. Watts’s faces. 

“The xylophone player! The xylophone player 
to marry her! Yonder he is!-” 

“Nonsense,” murmured Mrs. Watts, peering 
over the others to look where Aimee pointed. “If 
he’s there I don’t see him. Where is he? You’re 
looking at One-Eye Beasley.” 

“The little man with the cap— no, with the 
red hair! Hurry!” 

“Is that really him?” Mrs. Carson asked Mrs. 
Watts in wonder. “Mercy! He’s small, isn’t he?” 

“Never saw him before in ray life!” cried Mrs. 
Watts. But suddenly she shut up her fan. 



Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 19 

“Come on! This is a train we’re on!” cried 
Aimee Slocum. Her nerves were all unstrung. 

“All right, don’t have a conniption fit, girl,” 
said Mrs. Watts. “Come on,” she said thickly to 
Mrs. Carson. 

“Where are we going now?” asked Lily as they 
struggled down the aisle. 

“We’re taking you to get married,” said Mrs. 
Watts. “Mrs. Carson, you’d better phone up your 
husband right there in the station.” 

“But I don’t want to git married,” said Lily, 
beginning to whimper. “I’m going to Ellisville.” 

“Hush, and we’ll all have some ice-cream cones 
later,” whispered Mrs. Carson. 

Just as they climbed down the steps at the back 
end of the train, the band went into “Inde- 
pendence March.” 

The xylophone player was still there, patting 
his foot. He came up and said, “Hello, Toots. 
What’s up— tricks?” and kissed Lily with a smack, 
after which she hung her head. 

“So you’re the young man we’ve heard so much 
about,” said Mrs. Watts. Her smile was brilliant. 
“Here’s your little Lily.” 

“What say?” asked the xylophone player. 

“My husband happens to be the Baptist 
preacher of Victory,” said Mrs. Carson in a loud, 
clear voice. “Isn’t that lucky? I can get him here 
in five minutes: I know exactly where he is.” 



ao 


A Curtain of Green 

They were in a circle around the xylophone 
player, all going into the white waiting room. 

“Oh, I feel just like crying, at a time like this,” 
said Aimee Slocum. She looked back and saw the 
train moving slowly away, going under the bridge 
at Main Street. Then it disappeared around the 
curve. 

“Oh, the hope chest!” Aimee cried in a stricken 
voice. 

“And whom have we the pleasure of addre,ss- 
ing?” Mrs. Watts was shouting, while Mrs. Carson 
was ringing up the telephone. 

1 he band went on playing. Some of the people 
thought Lily was on the train, and some swore she 
wasn’t. Everybody cheered, though, and a straw 
hat was thrown into the telephone wires. 



A PIECE OF NEWS 


Cj/he had been out in the rain. 
She stood in front of the cabin fireplace, her legs 
wide apart, bending over, shaking her wet yellow 
head crossly, like a cat reproaching itself for not 
knowing better. She was talking to herself— only 
a small fluttering sound, hard to lay hold of in 
the sparsity of the room. 

“The pouring-down rain, the pouring-down 
rain”— was that what she was saying over and over, 
like a song? She stood turning in little quarter 
turns to dry herself, her head bent forward and 
the yellow hair hanging out streaming and tangled. 
She was holding her skirt primly out to draw 
the warmth in. 

Then, quite rosy, she walked over to the table 
and picked up a little bundle. It was a sack of 
coffee, marked “Sample” in red letters, which 
she unwrapped from a wet newspaper. But she 
handled it tenderly. 

“Why, how come he wrapped it in a news- 


21 



23 A Curtain oj Green 

paper!” she said, catching her breath, looking 
from one hand to the other. She must have been 
lonesome and slow all her life, the way things 
would take her by surprise. 

She set the coffee on the table, just in the 
center. Then she dragged the newspaper by one 
corner in a dreamy walk across the floor, spread 
it all out, and lay down full length on top of it 
in front of the fire. Her little song about the 
rain, her cries of surprise, had been only a pre- 
liminary, only playful pouting with tvhich she 
amused herself when she was alone. She was 
pleased with herself now. As she sprawled close 
to the fire, her hair began to slide out of its damp 
tangles and hung all displayed down her back 
like a piece of bargain silk. She closed her eyes. 
Her mouth fell into a deepness, into a look of 
unconscious cunning. Yet in her very stillness and 
pleasure she seemed to be hiding there, all alone. 
And at moments when the fire stirred and tum- 
bled in the grate, she would tremble, and her 
hand would start out as if in impatience or des- 
pair. 

Presently she stirred and reached under her 
back for the newspaper. Then she squatted there, 
touching the printed page as if it were fragile. 
She did not merely look at it— she watched it, as 
if it were unpredictable, like a young girl watch- 



A Piece of News 23 

ing a baby. The paper was still wet in places 
where her body had lain. Crouching tensely and 
patting the creases away with small cracked red 
fingers, she frowned now and then at the blotched 
drawing of something and big letters that spelled 
a word underneath. Her lips trembled, as if look- 
ing and spelling so slowly had stirred her heart. 

All at once she laughed. 

She looked up. 

“Ruby Fisher!” she whispered. 

An expression of utter timidity came over her 
flat blue eyes and her soft mouth. Then a look 
of fright. She stared about. . . . What eye in the 
world did she feel looking in on her? She pulled 
her dress down tightly and began to spell through 
a dozen words in the newspaper. 

The little item said: 

“Mrs. Ruby Fisher had the misfortune to be 
shot in the leg by her husband this week.” 

As she passed from one word to the next she 
only whispered; she left the long word, “misfor- 
tune,” until the last, and came back to it, then 
she said it all over out loud, like conversation. 

“That’s me,” she said softly, with deference, 
very formally. 

The fire slipped and suddenly roared in the 
house already deafening with the rain which beat 
upon the roof and hung full of lightning and 
thunder outside. 



24 ^ Curtain of Green 

“You Clyde!” screamed Ruby Fisher at Iasi, 
jumping to her feel. ‘‘Where are you, Clyde 
Fisher?” 

She ran straight to the door and pulled il open. 
A shudder of cold brushed over her in the heat, 
and she seemed striped with anger and bewilder- 
ment. There was a flash of lightning, and she stood 
waiting, as if she half thought that would bring 
him in, a gun leveled in his hand. 

She said nothing more and, backing against the 
door, pushed it closed with her hip. Her anger 
passed like a remote flare of elation. Neatly avoid- 
ing the table where the bag of coffee stood, she 
began to walk nervously about the room, as if a 
teasing indecision, an untouched mystery, led her 
by the hand. There was one window, and she 
paused now and then, waiting, looking out at 
the rain. When she was still, there was a passivity 
about her, or a deception of passivity, that was 
not really passive at all. There was something in 
her that never stopped. 

At last she flung herself onto the floor, back 
across the newspaper, and looked at length into 
the fire. It might have been a mirror in the cabin, 
into which she could look deeper and deeper as 
she pulled her fingers through her hair, trying to 
see herself and Clyde coming up behind her. 

"Clyde?” 

But of course her husband, Clyde, was still in 



A Piece of News 25 

the woods. He kept a thick brushwood roof over 
his whisky still, and he was mortally afraid of 
lightning like this, and would never go out in it 
for anything. 

And then, almost in amazement, she began to 
comprehend her predicament: it was unlike Clyde 
to take up a gun and shoot her. 

She bowed her head toward the heat, onto her 
rosy arms, and began to talk and talk to herself. 
She grew voluble. Even if he heard about the 
coffee man, with a Pontiac car, she did not think 
he would shoot her. When Clyde would make 
her blue, she would go out onto the road, some 
car would slow down, and if it had a Tennessee 
license, the lucky kind, the chances were that she 
would spend the afternoon in the shed of the 
empty gin. (Here she rolled her head about on 
her arms and stretched her legs tiredly behind 
her, like a cat.) And if Clyde got word, he would 
slap her. But the account in the paper was wrong. 
Clyde had never shot her, even once. There had 
been a mistake made. 

A spark flew out and nearly caught the paper 
on fire. Almost in fright she beat it out with her 
fingers. Then she murmured and lay back more 
firmly upon the pages. 

There she stretched, growing warmer and 
warmer, sleepier and sleepier. She began to won- 
der out loud how it would be if Clyde shot her in 



s6 A Curtain of Green 

the leg. ... If he were truly angry, might he 
shoot her through the heart? 

At once she was imagining herself dying. She 
would have a nightgown to lie in, and a bullet in 
her heart. Anyone could tell, to see her lying 
there with that deep expression about her mouth, 
how strange and terrible that would be. Under- 
neath a brand-new nightgown her heart would 
be hurting with every beat, many times more 
than her toughened skin when Clyde slapped at 
her. Ruby began to cry softly, the way she would 
be crying from the extremity of pain; tears would 
run down in a little stream over the quilt. Clyde 
would be standing there above her, as he once 
looked, with his wild black hair hanging to his 
shoulders. He used to be very handsome and 
strong! 

He would say, “Ruby, 1 done this to you.” 

She would say— only a whisper— “That is the 
truth, Clyde— you done this to me.” 

Then she would die; her life would stop right 
there. 

She lay silently for a moment, composing her 
face into a look which would be beautiful, desir- 
able, and dead. 

Clyde would have to buy her a dress to bury 
her in. He would have to dig a deep hole behind 
the house, under the cedar, a grave. He would 
have to nail her up a pine coffin and lay her in- 



A Piece of News 27 

side. Then he would have to carry her to the 
grave, lay her down and cover her up. All the 
time he would be wild, shouting, and all dis- 
tracted, to think he could never touch her one 
more time. 

She moved slightly, and her eyes turned toward 
the window. The white rain splashed down. She 
could hardly breathe, for thinking that this was 
the way it was to fall on her grave, where Clyde 
would come and stand, looking down in the tears 
of some repentance. 

A whole tree of lightning stood in the sky. She 
kept looking out the window, sufiFused with the 
warmth from the fire and with the pity and beauty 
and power of her death. The thunder rolled. 

Then Clyde was standing there, with dark 
streams flowing over the floor where he had 
walked. He poked at Ruby with the butt of his 
gun, as if she were asleep. 

“What’s keepin’ supper?” he growled. 

She jumped up and darted away from him. 
Then, quicker than lightning, she put away the 
paper. The room was dark, except for the fire- 
light. From the long shadow of his steamy presence 
she spoke to him glibly and lighted the lamp. 

He stood there with a stunned, yet rather good- 
humored look of delay and patience in his face, 
and kept on standing there. He stamped his 



28 A Curtain of Green 

mud-red boots, and his enormous hands seemed 
weighted with the rain that fell from him and 
dripped down the barrel of the gun. Presently 
he sat down with dignity in the chair at the table, 
making a little tumult of his rightful wetness and 
hunger. Small streams began to flo'sv from him 
everywhere. 

Ruby was going through the preparations for 
the meal gently. She stood almost on tiptoe in 
her bare, warm feet. Once as she knelt at the safe, 
getting out the biscuits, she saw Clyde looking at 
her and she smiled and bent her head tenderly. 
There was some way she began to move her arms 
that was mysteriously sweet and yet abrupt and 
tentative, a delicate and vulnerable manner, as 
though her breasts gave her pain. She made many 
unnecessary trips back and forth across the floor, 
circling Clyde where he sat in his steamy silence, 
a knife and fork in his fists. 

“Well, where you been, anyway?” he grumbled 
at last, as she set the first dish on the table. 

“Nowheres special.” 

“Don’t you talk back to me. You been hitch- 
hikin’ again, ain’t you?” He almost chuckled. 

She gave him a quick look straight into his eyes. 
She had not even heard him. She was filled with 
happiness. Her hand trembled when she poured 
the coffee. Some of it splashed on his wrist. 



A Piece of News sg 

At that he let his hand drop heavily down 
upon the table and made the plates jump. 

“Some day I’m goin’ to smack the livin’ devil 
outa you,” he said. 

Ruby dodged mechanically. She let him eat. 
Then, when he had crossed his knife and fork 
over his plate, she brought him the newspaper. 
Again she looked at him in delight. It excited her 
even to touch the paper with her hand, to hear 
its quiet secret noise when she carried it, the rustle 
of surprise. 

“A newspaper!” Clyde snatched it roughly and 
with a grabbing disparagement. “Where ’d you 
git that? Hussy.” 

“Look at this-here,” said Ruby in her small 
singsong voice. She opened the paper while he 
held it and pointed gravely to the paragraph. 

Reluctantly, Clyde began to read it. She 
watched his damp bald head slowly bend and turn. 

Then he made a sound in his throat and said, 
“It’s a lie.” 

“That’s what’s in the newspaper about me,” 
said Ruby, standing up straight. She took up his 
plate and gave him that look of joy. 

He put his big crooked finger on the para- 
graph and poked at it. 

“Well, I’d just like to see the place I shot you!” 
he cried explosively. He looked up, his face blank 
and bold. 



<50 A Curtain of Green 

But she drew herself in, still holding the empty 
plate, faced him straightened and hard, and they 
looked at each other. The moment filled full with 
their helplessness. Slowly they both flushed, as 
though with a double shame and a double 
pleasure. It was as though Clyde might really have 
killed Ruby, and as though Ruby might really 
have been dead at his hand. Rare and wavering, 
some possibility stood timidly like a stranger be- 
tween them and made them hang their heads. 

Then Clyde walked over in his xvater-soaked 
boots and laid the paper on the dying fire. It 
floated there a moment and then burst into flame. 
They stood still and watched it burn. The whole 
room was bright. 

“Look,” said Clyde suddenly. “It’s a Tennessee 
paper. See ‘Tennessee’? That wasn’t none of you 
it wrote about.” He laughed, to show that he had 
been right all the time. 

“It rvas Ruby Fisher!” cried Ruby. “My name 
is Ruby Fisher!” she declared passionately to 
Clyde. 

“Oho, it was another Ruby Fisher— in Ten- 
nessee,” cried her husband. “Fool me, huh? Where 
’d you get that paper?” He spanked her good- 
humoredly across her backside. 

Ruby folded her still trembling hands into her 
skirt. She stood stooping by the window until 



A Piece of News 31 

everything, outside and in, was quieted before 
she went to her supper. 

It was dark and vague outside. The storm had 
rolled away to faintness like a wagon crossing a 
bridge. 



PETRIFIED MAN 


<gi. 


C/Veach in my purse and git me 
a cigarette without no powder in it if you kin, 
Mrs. Fletcher, honey,” said Lcota to her ten 
o’clock shampoo-and-set customer. ‘‘I don’t like 
no perfumed cigarettes.” 

Mrs. Fletcher gladly reached over to the laven- 
der shelf under the lavender-framed mirror, shook 
a hair net loose from fhe clasp of the patent- 
leather bag, and slapped her hand down quickly 
on a powder puff which burst out when the purse 
was opened. 

“Why, look at the peanuts, Leota!” said Mrs. 
Fletcher in her marvelling voice. 

“Honey, them goobers has been in my purse 
a week if they’s been in it a day. Mrs. Pike 
bought them peanuts.” 

“Who’s Mrs. Pike?” asked Mrs. Fletcher, set- 
tling back. Hidden in this den of curling fluid 
and henna packs, separated by a lavender swing- 
door from the other customers, who were being 


Petrified Man 33 

gratified in other booths, she could give her curi- 
osity its freedom. She looked expectantly at the 
black part in Leota’s yellow curls as she bent to 
light the cigarette. 

“Mrs. Pike is this lady from New Orleans,” 
said Leota, puffing, and pressing into Mrs. 
Fletcher’s scalp with strong red-nailed fingers. “A 
friend, not a customer. You see, like maybe I 
told you last time, me and Fred and Sal and Joe 
all had us a fuss, so Sal and Joe up and moved 
out, so we didn’t do a thing but rent out their 
room. So we rented it to Mrs. Pike. And Mr. 
Pike.” She flicked an ash into the basket of dirty 
towels. “Mrs. Pike is a very decided blonde. She 
bought me the peanuts.” 

“She must be cute,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Honey, ‘cute’ ain’t the word for what she is. 
I’m tellin’ you, Mrs. Pike is attractive. She has 
her a good time. She’s got 3 sharp eye out, Mrs. 
Pike has.” 

She dashed the comb through the air, and 
paused dramatically as a cloud of Mrs. Fletcher’s 
hennaed hair floated out of the lavender teeth 
like a small storm-cloud. 

“Hair failin’.” 

“Aw, Leota.” 

“Uh-huh, commencin’ to fall out,” said Leota, 
combing again, and letting fall another cloud. 

“Is it any dandruff in it?” Mrs. Fletcher was 



34 A Cuitain of Green 

frowning, her hair-line eyebrows diving down 
toward her nose, and her wrinkled, beady-lashed 
eyelids balling with concentration. 

“Nope.” She combed again. “Just failin’ out.” 

“Bet it was that last perm’nent you gave me 
that did it,” Mrs. Fletcher said cruelly. “Remem- 
ber you cooked me fourteen minutes.” 

“You had fourteen minutes cornin’ to you,” 
said Leota with finality. 

“Bound to be somethin’,” persisted Mrs. 
Fletcher. “Dandruff, dandruff. I couldn’t of 
caught a thing like that from Mr. Fletcher, 
could I?” 

“Well,” Leota answered at last, “you know 
xvhat I heard in here yestiddy, one of Thelma’s 
ladies was settin’ over yonder in Thelma’s booth 
gittin’ a machineless, and I don’t mean to insist 
or insinuate or anything, Mrs. Fletcher, but Thel- 
ma’s lady just happ’med to throw out— I forgot- 
ten what she was talkin’ about at the time— that 
you was p-r-e-g., and lots of times that’ll make 
your hair do awful funny, fall out and God knows 
what all. It just ain’t our fault, is the way I look 
at it.” 

There was a pause. The women stared at each 
other in the mirror. 

“Who was it?” demanded Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Honey, I really couldn’t say,” said Leota. “Not 
that you look it.” 



Petrified Man 35 

“Where’s Thelma? I’ll get it out of her,” said 
Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Now, honey, I wouldn’t go and git mad over a 
little thing like that,” Leota said, combing hastily, 
as though to hold Mrs. Fletcher down by the hair. 
“I’m sure it was somebody didn’t mean no harm 
in the world. How far gone are you?” 

“Just wait,” said Mrs. Fletcher, and shrieked 
for Thelma, who came in and took a drag from 
Leota’s cigarette. 

“Thelma, honey, throw your mind back to yes- 
tiddy if you kin,” said Leota, drenching Mrs. 
Fletcher’s hair with a thick fluid and catching the 
overflow in a cold wet towel at her neck. 

“Well, I got my lady half wound for a spiral,” 
said Thelma doubtfully. 

“This won’t take but a minute,” said Leota. 
“Who is it you got in there, old Horse Face? 
Just cast your mind back and try to remember 
who your lady was yestiddy who happ’m to men- 
tion that my customer was pregnant, that’s all. 
She’s dead to know.” 

Thelma drooped her blood-red lips and looked 
over Mrs. Fletcher’s head into the mirror. “Why, 
honey, I ain’t got the faintest,” she breathed. “I 
really don’t recollect the faintest. But I’m sure she 
meant no harm. I declare, I forgot my hair finally 
got combed and thought it was a stranger be- 
hind me.” 



36 A Curtain of Green 

“Was it that Mrs. Hutchinson?” Mrs. Fletcher 
was tensely polite. 

“Mrs. Hutchinson? Oh, Mrs. Hutchinson.” 
Thelma batted her eyes. “Naw, precious, she come 
on Thursday and didn’t ev’m mention your name. 
I doubt if she ev’m knows you’re on the way.” 

“Thelma!” cried Leota staunchly. 

“All I know is, whoever it is ’ll be sorry some 
day. Why, I just barely knew it myself!” cried 
Mrs. Fletcher. “Just let her wait!” 

“Why? What ’re you gonna do to her?” 

It was a child’s voice, and the women looked 
down. A little boy was making tents with alumi- 
num wave pinchers on the floor under the sink. 

“Billy Boy, hon, mustn’t bother nice ladies,” 
Leota smiled. She slapped him brightly and be- 
hind her back waved Thelma out of the booth. 
“Ain’t Billy Boy a sight? Only three years old 
and already just nuts about the beauty-parlor 
business.” 

“I never saw him here before,” said Mrs. 
Fletcher, still unmollified. 

“He ain’t been here before, that’s how come,” 
said Leota. “He belongs to Mrs. Pike. She got 
her a job but it was Fay’s Millinery. He oughtn’t 
to try on those ladies’ hats, they come down over 
his eyes like I don’t know what. They just git to 
look ridiculous, that’s what, an’ of course he’s 
gonna put ’em on: hats. They tole Mrs. Pike 



Petrified Man 37 

they didn’t appreciate him hangin’ around there. 
Here, he couldn’t hurt a thing.” 

“Well! I don’t like children that much,” said 
Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Well!” said Leota moodily. 

“Well! I’m almost tempted not to have this 
one,” said Mrs. Fletcher. “That Mrs. Hutchin- 
son! Just looks straight through you when she 
sees you on the street and then spits at you be- 
hind your back.” 

“Mr. Fletcher would beat you on the head if 
you didn’t have it now,” said Leota reasonably. 
“After going this far.” 

Mrs. Fletcher sat up straight. “Mr. Fletcher 
can’t do a thing with me.” 

“He can’t!” Leota winked at herself in the mir- 
ror. 

“No, siree, he can’t. If he so much as raises 
his voice against me, he knows good and well 
I’ll have one of my sick headaches, and then I’m' 
just not fit to live with. And if I really look that 
pregnant already—” 

“Well, now, honey, I just want you to know— 
I habm’t told any of my ladies and I ain’t goin.’' 
to tell ’em— even that you’re losin’ your hair. You 
just get you one of those Stork-a-Lure dresses 
and stop worry in’. What people don’t know don’t 
hurt nobody, as Mrs. Pike says.” 



38 yl Chi lain of Gieeii 

“Did you tell Mrs. Pike?’’ asked Mrs. Fletcher 
sulkily. 

“Well, Mrs. Fletcher, look, you ain't ever goin’ 
to lay eyes on Mrs. Pike or her lay eyes on you, 
so what difiunce does it make in the long I'un?’’ 

“I knew it!” Mrs. Fletcher deliberately nodded 
her head so as to destroy a ringlet Leota was work- 
ing on behind her ear. “Mrs. Pike!” 

Leota sighed. “I reckon I might as well tell 
you. It wasn’t any more Thelma’s lady tole me 
you was pregnant than a bat.” 

“Not Mrs. Hutchinson?” 

“Naw, Lord! It was Mrs. Pike.” 

“Mrs. Pike!” Mrs. Fletcher could only sputter 
and let curling fluid roll into her ear. “How 
could Mrs. Pike possibly know I was pregnant 
or otherwise, when she doesn’t even know me? 
The nerve o£ some people!” 

“Well, here’s how it was. Remember Sunday?” 

“Yes,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Sunday, Mrs. Pike an’ me was all by ourself. 
Mr. Pike and Fred had gone over to Eagle Lake, 
sayin’ they was goin’ to catch ’em some fish, but 
they didn’t a course. So w'e was settin’ in Mrs. 
Pike’s car, it’s a 1939 Dodge—” 

“1939, eh,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“—An’ we was gettin’ us a Jax beer apiece— 
that’s the beer that Mrs. Pike says is made right 
in N.O., so she won’t drink no other kind. So I 



Petrified Man 39) 

seen you drive up to the drugstore an’ run in for 
just a secont, leavin’ I reckon Mr. Fletcher in 
the car, an’ come runnin’ out with looked like 
a perscription. So I says to Mrs. Pike, just to be 
makin’ talk, ‘Right yonder’s Mrs. Fletcher, and 
I reckon that’s Mr. Fletcher— she’s one of my 
regular customers,’ I says.” 

‘‘I had on a figured print,” said Mrs. Fletcher 
tentatively. 

‘‘You sure did,” agreed Leota. “So Mrs. Pike, 
she give you a good look— she’s very observant, 
a good judge of character, cute as a minute, you 
know— and she says, ‘I bet you another Jax that 
lady’s three months on the way.’ ” 

“What gall!” said Mrs. Fletcher. “Mrs. Pike!” 

“Mrs. Pike ain’t goin’ to bite you,” said Leota. 
“Mrs. Pike is a lovely girl, you’d be crazy about 
her, Mrs. Fletcher. But she can’t sit still a minute. 
We went to the travellin’ freak show yestiddy 
after work. I got through early— nine o’clock. In 
the vacant store next door. What, you ain’t been?’” 

“No, I despise freaks,” declared Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Aw. Well, honey, talkin’ about bein’ preg- 
nant an’ all, you ought to see those twins in a 
bottle, you really owe it to yourself.” 

“What twins?” asked Mrs. Fletcher out of the 
side of her mouth. 

“Well, honey, they got these two twins in a 
bottle, see? Born joined plumb together— dead a 



40 A Curtain of Green 

course.” Leota dropped her voice into a soft lyri- 
cal hum. “They was about this long— pardon- 
must of been full time, all right, wouldn’t you 
say?— an’ they had these two heads an’ two faces 
an’ four arms an’ four legs, all kind of joined 
here. See, this face looked this-a-way, and the 
other face looked that-a-way, over their shoulder, 
see. Kinda pathetic.” 

“Glah!” said Mrs. Fletcher disapprovingly. 

“Well, ugly? Honey, I mean to tell you— their 
parents was first cousins and all like that. Billy 
Boy, git me a fresh towel from off Teeny’s stack 
—this ’n’s wringin’ wet— an’ quit ticklin’ my 
ankles with that curler. I declare! He don’t miss 
nothin’.” 

“Me and Mr. Fletcher aren’t one speck of kin, 
or he could never of had me,” said Mrs. Fletcher 
placidly. 

“Of course not!” protested Leota. “Neither is 
me an’ Fred, not that we know of. Well, honey, 
what Mrs. Pike liked was the pygmies. They’ve 
got these pygmies down there, too, an’ Mrs. Pike 
was just wild about ’em. You know, the tee- 
niniest men in the universe? Well, honey, they 
can just rest back on their little bohunkus an’ 
roll around an’ you can’t hardly tell if they’re 
sittin’ or standin’. That’ll give you some idea. 
They’re about forty-two years old. Just suppose 
it was your husband!” 



Petrified Man 41 

“Well, Mr. Fletcher is five foot nine and one 
half,” said Mrs. Fletcher quickly. 

“Fred’s five foot ten,” said Leota, “but I tell 
him he’s still a shrimp, account of I’m so tall.” 
She made a deep wave over Mrs. Fletcher’s other 
temple with the comb. “Well, these pygmies are 
a kind of a dark brown, Mrs. Fletcher. Not bad- 
lookin’ for what they are, you know.” 

“I wouldn’t care for them,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 
“What does that Mrs. Pike see in them?” 

“Aw, I don’t know,” said Leota. “She’s just 
cute, that’s all. But they got this man, this petri- 
fied man, that ever’thing ever since he was nine 
years old, when it goes through his digestion, see, 
somehow Mrs. Pike says it goes to his joints and 
has been turning to stone.” 

“How awful!” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“He’s forty-two too. That looks like a bad age.” 

“Who said so, that Mrs. Pike? I bet she’s forty- 
two,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Naw,” said Leota, “Mrs. Pike’s thirty-three, 
born in January, an Aquarian. He could move 
his head— like this. A course his head and mind 
ain’t a joint, so to speak, and I guess his stomach 
ain’t, either— not yet, anyways. But see— his food, 
he eats it, and it goes down, see, and then he 
digests it”— Leota rose on her toes for an instant 
—“and it goes out to his joints and before you 
can say Robinson,’ it’s stone— pure stone 



42 A Curtain of Green 

He’s turning to stone. How’d you like to be mar- 
ried to a guy like that? All he can do, he can move 
his head just a quarter of an inch. A course he 
looks just terrible.” 

“I should think he would,” said Mrs. Fletcher 
frostily. “Mr. Fletcher takes bending exercises 
every night of the world. I make him.” 

“All Fred does is lay around the house like a 
rug. I wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up some 
day and couldn’t move. The petrified man just 
sat there moving his quarter of an inch though,” 
said Leota reminiscently. 

“Did Mrs. Pike like the petrified man?” asked 
Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Not as much as she did the others,” said Leota 
deprecatingly. “And then she likes a man to be 
a good dresser, and all that.” 

“Is Mr. Pike a good dresser?” asked Mrs. 
Fletcher sceptically. 

“Oh, well, yeah,” said Leota, “but he’s twelve 
or fourteen years older’n her. She ast Lady Evan- 
geline about him.” 

“Who’s Lady Evangeline?” asked Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Well, it’s this mind reader they got in the 
freak show,” said Leota. “Was real good. Lady 
Evangeline is her name, and if I had another dol- 
lar I wouldn’t do a thing but have my other palm 
read. She had what Mrs. Pike said was the ‘sixth 



Petrified Man 43 

mind’ but she had the worst manicure I ever saw 
on a living person.” 

“What did she tell Mrs. Pike?” asked Mrs. 
Pletcher. 

“She told her Mr. Pike was as true to her as 
he could be and besides, would come into some 
money.” 

“Humph!” said Mrs. Fletcher. “What does 
he do?” 

“I can’t tell,” said Leota, “because he don’t 
work. Lady Evangeline didn’t tell me enough 
about my nature or anything. And I would like 
to go back and find out some more about this 
boy. Used to go with this boy until he got married 
to this girl. Oh, shoot, that was about three and 
a half years ago, when you was still goin’ to the 
Robert E. Lee Beauty Shop in Jackson. He mar- 
ried her for her money. Another fortune-teller 
tole me that at the time. So I’m not in love with 
him any more, anyway, besides being married to 
Fred, but Mrs. Pike thought, just for the hell of 
it, see, to ask Lady Evangeline was he happy.” 

“Does Mrs. Pike know everything about you 
already?” asked Mrs. Fletcher unbelievingly. 
“Mercy!” 

“Oh, yeah, I tole her ever’thing about ever’- 
thing, from now on back to I don’t know when— 
to when I first started goin’ out,” said Leota. “So 
I ast Lady Evangeline for one of my questions. 



44 A Curtain of Green 

was he happily married, and she says, just like 
she was glad I ask her, ‘Honey,’ she says, ‘naw, 
he idn’t. You write down this day, March 8, 
1941,’ she says, ‘and mock it down: three years 
from today him and her won’t be occupy in’ the 
same bed.’ There it is, up on the wall with them 
other dates— see, Mrs. Fletcher? And she says, 
‘Child, you ought to be glad you didn’t git him, 
because he’s so mercenary.’ So I’m glad I married 
Fred. He sure ain’t mercenary, money don’t mean 
a thing to him. But I sure would like to go back 
and have my other palm read.” 

‘‘Did Mrs. Pike believe in what the fortune- 
teller said?” asked Mrs. Fletcher in a superior tone 
of voice. 

“Lord, yes, she’s from New Orleans. Ever’body 
in New Orleans believes ever’ thing spooky. One 
of ’em in New Orleans before it was raided says 
to Mrs. Pike one summer she was goin’ to go from 
State to State and meet some grey-headed men, 
and, sure enough, she says she went on a beauti- 
cian convention up to Chicago. ...” 

“Oh!” said Mrs. Fletcher. “Oh, is Mrs. Pike 
a beautician too?” 

“Sure she is,” protested Leota. “She’s a beauti- 
cian. I’m goin’ to git her in here if I can. Before 
she married. But it don’t leave you. She says sure 
enough, there was three men who was a very 
large part of making her trip what it was, and 



Petrified Man 4S 

they all three had grey in their hair and they 
went in six States. Got Christmas cards from ’em. 
Billy Boy, go see if Thelma’s got any dry cotton. 
Look how Mrs. Fletcher’s a-drippin’.” 

“Where did Mrs. Pike meet Mr. Pike?’’ asked 
Mrs. Fletcher primly. 

“On another train,’’ said Leota. 

“I met Mr. Fletcher, or rather he met me, in 
a rental library,” said Mrs. Fletcher with dignity, 
as she watched the net come down over her head. 

“Honey, me an’ Fred, we met in a rumble seat 
eight months ago and we was practically on what 
you might call the way to the altar inside of 
half an hour,” said Leota in a guttural voice, and 
bit a bobby pin open. “Course it don’t last. Mrs. 
Pike says nothin’ like that ever lasts.” 

“Mr. Fletcher and myself are as much in love 
as the day we married,” said Mrs. Fletcher bel- 
ligerently as Leota stuffed cotton into her ears. 

“Mrs. Pike says it don’t last,” repeated Leota 
in a louder voice. “Now go git under the dryer. 
You can turn yourself on, can’t you? I’ll be back 
to comb you out. Durin’ lunch I promised to 
give Mrs. Pike a facial. You know— free. Her bein' 
in the business, so to speak.” 

“I bet she needs one,” said Mrs. Fletcher, let- 
ting the swing-door fly back against Leota. “Oh, 
pardon me,” 



46 A Curtain 0} (Aecu 

A week later, on time tor her appointment, 
Mrs. Fletcher sank heavily into Leota's chair after 
first removing a drug-store rental book, called 
Lije Is Like That, from the scat. She stared in 
a discouraged way into the mirror. 

“You can tell it when I’m sitting down, all 
right,” she said. 

Leota seemed preoccupied and stood shaking 
out a lavender cloth. She began to pin it around 
Mrs. Fletcher’s neck in silence. 

“I said you sure can tell it when I’m sitting 
straight on and coming at you this way,” Mrs. 
Fletcher said. 

“Why, honey, naw you can’t,” .said Leota 
gloomily. “Why, I’d never know. If somebody 
was to come up to me on the street and say, ‘Mrs. 
Fletcher is pregnant!’ I’d say, ‘Heck, she don’t 
look it to me.’ ” 

“If a certain party hadn’t found it out and 
spread it around, it wouldn’t be too late even 
now,” said Mrs. Fletcher frostily, but Leota was 
almost choking her with the cloth, pinning it so 
tight, and she couldn’t speak clearly. She paddled 
her hands in the air until Leota wearily loosened 
her. 

“Listen, honey, you’re just a virgin compared 
to Mrs. Montjoy,” Leota was going on, still ab- 
sent-minded. She bent Mrs. Fletcher back in the 
chair and, sighing, tossed liquid from a teacup on 



Petrified Man 47 

to her head and dug both hands into her scalp. 
“You know Mrs. Montjoy— her husband’s that 
premature-grey-headed fella?’’ 

“She’s in the Trojan Garden Club, is all I 
know,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Well, honey,” said Leota, but in a weary voice, 
“she come in here not the week before and not 
the day before she had her baby— she come in 
here the very selfsame day, I mean to tell you. 
Child, we was all plumb scared to death. There 
she was! Come for her shampoo an’ set. Why, Mrs. 
Fletcher, in an hour an’ twenty minutes she was 
layin’ up there in the Babtist Hospital with a 
seb’m-pound son. It was that close a shave. I de- 
clare, if I hadn’t been so tired I would of drank 
up a bottle of gin that night.” 

“What gall,” said Mrs. Fletcher. “I never knew 
her at all well.” 

“See, her husband was waitin’ outside in the 
car, and her bags was all packed an’ in the back 
seat, an’ she was all ready, ’cept she wanted her 
shampoo an’ set. An’ havin’ one pain right after 
another. Her husband kep’ cornin’ in here, scared- 
like, but couldn’t do nothin’ with her a course. 
She yelled bloody murder, too, but she always 
yelled her head off when I give her a perm’nent.” 

“She must of been crazy,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 
“How did she look?” 

“Shoot!” said Leota. 



48 A Cun tain of Checn 

“Well, I can guess,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 
“Awful.” 

“Just wanted to look pretty while she was 
havin’ her baby, is all,” said l.eota airily. “Course, 
we was glad to give the lady what she was after 
—that’s our motto— but I bet a hour later she 
wasn’t payin’ no mind to them little end curls. I 
bet she wasn’t thinkin’ about she ought to have 
on a net. It wouldn’t of done her no good if she 
had.” 

“No, I don’t suppose it would,” said Mrs. 
Fletcher. 

“Yeah man! She was a-yellin’. Just like when I 
give her perm’nent.” 

“Her husband ought to make her behave. Don’t 
it seem that way to you?” asked Mrs. Hetcher. 
“He ought to put his foot down.” 

“Ha,” said Leota. “A lot he could do. Maybe 
some women is soft.” 

“Oh, you mistake me, I don’t mean for her to 
get soft— far from it! Women have to stand up 
for themselves, or there’s just no telling. But 
now you take me— I ask Mr. Fletcher’s advice now 
and then, and he appreciates it, especially on 
something important, like is it time for a perma- 
nent— not that I’ve told him about the baby. He 
says, ‘Why, dear, go ahead!' Just ask their advice.” 

“Huh! If I ever ast Fred’s advice we’d be 
floatin’ down the Yazoo River on a houseboat or 



Petrified Man 49 

somethin’ by this time,” said Leota. “I’m sick 
of Fred. I told him to go over to Vicksburg.” 

“Is he going?” demanded Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Sure. See, the fortune-teller— I went back and 
had my other palm read, since we’ve got to rent 
the room agin— said my lover was goin’ to work 
in Vicksburg, so I don’t know who she could 
mean, unless she meant Fred. And Fred ain’t 
workin’ here— that much is so.” 

“Is he going to work in Vicksburg?’ asked Mrs. 
Fletcher. “And—” 

“Sure. Lady Evangeline said so. Said the future 
is going to be brighter than the present. He don’t 
want to go, but I ain’t gonna put up with nothin’ 
like that. Lays around the house an’ bulls— did 
bull— with that good-for-nothin’ Mr. Pike. He 
says if he goes who’ll cook, but I says I never 
get to eat anyway— not meals. Billy Boy, take 
Mrs. Grover that Screen Secrets and leg it.” 

Mrs. Fletcher heard stamping feet go out the 
door. 

“Is that that Mrs. Pike’s little boy here again?” 
she asked, sitting up gingerly. 

“Yeah, that’s still him.” Leota stuck out her 
tongue. 

Mrs. Fletcher could hardly believe her eyes. 
“Well! How’s Mrs. Pike, your attractive new 
friend with the sharp eyes who spreads it around 



50 A Curtain of Green 

town that perfect strangers are pregnant?” she 
asked in a sweetened tone. 

“Oh, Mizziz Pike.” Leota combed Mrs. 
Fletcher’s hair with heavy strokes. 

“You act like you’re tired,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Tired? Feel like it’s four o’clock in the after- 
noon already,” said Leota. “I ain’t told you the 
awful luck we had, me and Fred? It’s the worst 
thing you ever heard of. Maybe you think Mrs. 
Pike’s got sharp eyes. Shoot, there’s a limit! Well, 
you know, we rented out our room to this Mr. 
and Mrs. Pike from New Orleans when Sal an’ 
Joe Fentress got mad at us ’cause they drank up 
some home-brew we had in the closet— Sal an’ Joe 
did. So, a week ago Sat’day Mr. and Mrs. Pike 
moved in. Well, I kinda fixed up the room, you 
know— put a sofa pillow on the couch and picked 
some ragged robbins and put in a vase, but they 
never did say they appreciated it. Anyway, then 
I put some old magazines on the table.” 

“I think that was lovely,” said Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Wait. So, come night ’fore last, Fred and this 
Mr. Pike, who Fred just took up with, was back 
from they said they was fishin’, bein’ as neither 
one of ’em has got a job to his name, and we was 
all settin’ around in their room. So Mrs. Pike was 
settin’ there, readin’ a old Startling G-Man Tales 
that was mine, mind you, I’d bought it myself, 
and all of a sudden she jumps!— into the air— 



Petrified Man 51 

you’d ’a’ thought she’d set on a spider— an’ says, 
‘Canfield’— ain’t that silly, that’s Mr. Pike— ‘Can- 
field, my God A’mighty,’ she says, ‘honey,’ she 
says, ‘we’re rich, and you won’t have to work.’ 
Not that he turned one hand anyway. Well, me 
and Fred rushes over to her, and Mr. Pike, too, 
and there she sets, pointin’ her finger at a photo 
in my copy of Startling G-Man. ‘See that man?’ 
yells Mrs. Pike. ‘Remember him, Canfield?’ 
‘Never forget a face,’ says Mr. Pike. ‘It’s Mr. 
Petrie, that we stayed with him in the apartment 
next to ours in Toulouse Street in N.O. for six 
weeks. Mr. Petrie.’ ‘Well,’ says Mrs. Pike, like she 
can’t hold out one secont longer, ‘Mr. Petrie is 
wanted for five hundred dollars cash, for rapin’ 
four women in California, and I know where 
he is.’ ” 

“Mercy!” said Mrs. Fletcher. “Where was he?” 

At some time Leota had washed her hair and 
now she yanked her up by the back locks and 
sat her up. 

“Know where he was?” 

“I certainly don’t,” Mrs. Fletcher said. Her 
scalp hurt all over. 

Leota flung a towel around the top of her cus- 
tomer’s head. “Nowhere else but in that freak 
show! I saw him just as plain as Mrs. Pike. He 
was the petrified man!” 



52 A Cur lain of Green 

“Who would ever have thought that!” cried 
Mrs. Fletcher sympathetically. 

“So Mr. Pike says, ‘Well whatta you know 
about that,’ an’ he looks real hard at the photo 
and whistles. And she starts dancin’ and singin’ 
about their good luck. She meant our bad luck! I 
made a point of tellin’ that fortune-teller the next 
time I saw her. I said, ‘Listen, that magazine 
was layin’ around the house for a month, and 
there was the freak show runnin’ night an’ day, 
not two steps away from my own beauty parlor, 
with Mr. Petrie just settin’ there waitin’. An’ it 
had to be Mr. and Mrs. Pike, almost perfect 
strangers.’ ” 

“What gall,” said Mrs. Fletcher. She was only 
sitting there,* wrapped in a turban, but she did 
not mind. 

“Fortune-tellers don’t care. And Mrs. Pike, she 
goes around actin’ like she thinks she was Mrs. 
God,” said Leota. “So they’re goin’ to leave to- 
morrow, Mr. and Mrs. Pike. And in the mean- 
time I got to keep that mean, bad little ole kid 
here, gettin’ under my feet ever’ minute of the 
day an’ talkin’ back too.” 

“Have they gotten the five hundred dollars’ 
reward already?” asked Mrs. Fletcher. 

“Well,” said Leota, “at first Mr. Pike didn’t 
want to do anything about it. Can you feature 
that? Said he kinda liked that ole bird and said 



Petrified Man 53 

he was real nice to ’em, lent ’em money or some- 
thin’. But Mrs. Pike simply tole him he could 
just go to hell, and I can see her point. She says, 
‘You ain’t worked a lick in six months, and here 
I make five hundred dollars in two seconts, and 
what thanks do I get for it? You go to hell. Can- 
field,’ she says. So,” Leota went on in a despondent 
voice, “they called up the cops and they caught 
the ole bird, all right, right there in the freak 
show where I saw him with my own eyes, thinkin’ 
he was petrified. He’s the one. Did it under his 
real name— Mr. Petrie. Four women in California, 
all in the month of August. So Mrs. Pike gits 
five hundred dollars. And my magazine, and right 
next door to my beauty parlor. I cried all night, 
but Fred said it wasn’t a bit of use and to go to 
sleep, because the whole thing was just a sort 
of coincidence— you know: can’t do nothin’ about 
it. He says it put him clean out of the notion of 
goin’ to Vicksburg for a few days till we rent 
out the room agin— no tellin’ who we’ll git this 
time.” 

“But can you imagine anybody knowing this 
old man, that’s raped four women?” persisted 
Mrs. Fletcher, and she shuddered audibly. “Did 
Mrs. Pike speak to him when she met him in the 
freak show?” 

Leota had begun to comb Mrs. Fletcher’s hair. 
“I says to her, I says, ‘I didn’t notice you failin’ 



54 A Curtain of Green 

on his neck when he ivas the petrified man— 
don’t tell me you didn’t recognize your fine 
friend?’ And she says, ‘I didn’t recognize him 
with that white powder all over his face. He just 
looked familiar.’ Mrs. Pike says, ‘and lots of peo- 
ple look familiar.’ But she says that ole petrified 
man did put her in mind of somebody. She won- 
dered who it was! Kep’ her awake, which man 
she’d ever knew it reminded her of. So when 
she seen the photo, it all come to her. Like a 
flash. Mr. Petrie. The way he’d turn his head 
and look at her when she took him in his break- 
fast.” 

‘‘Took him in his breakfast!” shrieked Mrs. 
Fletcher. ‘‘Listen— don’t tell me. I’d ’a’ felt some- 
thing.” 

‘‘Four women. I guess those women didn’t have 
the faintest notion at the time they’d be worth 
a hunderd an’ twenty-five bucks a piece some day 
to Mrs. Pike. We ast her how old the fella was 
then, an’ she says he musta had one foot in the 
grave, at least. Can you beat it?” 

‘‘Not really petrified at all, of course,” said Mrs. 
Fletcher meditatively. She drew herself up. ‘‘I’d 
’a’ felt something,” she said proudly. 

‘‘Shoot! I did feel somethin’,” said Leota. “I 
tole Fred when I got home I felt so funny. I said, 
‘Fred, that ole petrified man sure did leave me 



Petrified Man 55 

funny-peculiar?’ and I says, ‘Funny-peculiar.’ ” 
She pointed her comb into the air emphatically. 

“I’ll bet you did,’’ said Mrs. Fletcher. 

They both heard a crackling noise. 

Leota screamed, “Billy Boy! What you doin’ in 
my purse?’’ 

“Aw, I’m just eatin’ these ole stale peanuts up,” 
said Billy Boy. 

“You come here to me!” screamed Leota, reck- 
lessly flinging down the comb, which scattered 
a whole ashtray full of bobby pins and knocked 
down a row of Coca-Cola bottles. “This is the last 
straw!” 

“I caught him! I caught him!” giggled Mrs. 
Fletcher. “I’ll hold him on my lap. You bad, bad 
boy, you! I guess I better learn how to spank 
little old bad boys,” she said. 

Leota’s eleven o’clock customer pushed open 
the swing-door upon Leota paddling him heartily 
with the brush, while he gave angry but belittling 
screams which penetrated beyond the booth and 
filled the whole curious beauty parlor. From 
everywhere ladies began to gather round to watch 
the paddling. Billy Boy kicked both Leota and 
Mrs. Fletcher as hard as he could, Mrs. Fletcher 
with her new fixed smile. 

Billy Boy stomped through the group of wild- 
haired ladies and went out the door, but flung 
.back the words, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t 
you rich?” 



THE KEY 


G/t was quiet in the waiting 
room of the remote little station, except for the 
night sounds of insects. You could hear their em- 
broidering movements in the weeds outside, 
which somehow gave the effect of some tenuous 
voice in the night, telling a story. Or you could 
listen to the fat thudding of the light bugs and 
the hoarse rushing of their big wings against the 
wooden ceiling. Some of the bugs were clinging 
heavily to the yellow globe, like idiot bees to a 
senseless smell. 

Under this prickly light two rows of people sat 
in silence, their faces stung, their bodies twisted 
and quietly uncomfortable, expectantly so, in ones 
and twos, not quite asleep. No one seemed impa- 
tient, although the train was late. A little girl lay 
flung back in her mother’s lap as though sleep 
had struck her with a blow. 

Ellie and Albert Morgan were sitting on. a 
bench like the others waiting for the train and 

56 



The Key 57 

had nothing to say to each other. Their names 
were ever so neatly and rather largely printed 
on a big reddish-tan suitcase strapped crookedly 
shut, because of a missing buckle, so that it hung 
apart finally like a stupid pair of lips. “Albert 
Morgan, Ellie Morgan, Yellow Leaf, Mississippi.” 
They must have been driven into town in a 
wagon, for they and the suitcase were all touched 
here and there with a fine yellow dust, like finger 
marks. 

Ellie Morgan was a large woman with a face as 
pink and crowded as an old-fashioned rose. She 
must have been about forty years old. One of 
those black satchel purses hung over her straight, 
strong wrist. It must have been her savings which 
were making possible this trip. And to what place? 
you wondered, for she sat there as tense and solid 
as a cube, as if to endure some nameless appre- 
hension rising and overflowing within her at the 
thought of travel. Her face worked and broke 
into strained, hardening lines, as if there had 
been a death— that too-explicit evidence of agony 
in the desire to communicate. 

Albert made a slower and softer impression. 
He sat motionless beside Ellie, holding his hat 
in his lap with both hands— a hat you were sure 
he had never worn. He looked home-made, as 
though his wife had self-consciously knitted or 
somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone 



5 8 A Ciitiam oj Green 

at night. He had a shock of very (ine sunburned 
yellow hair. He was too shy lor this world, you 
could sec. His hands were like cardboard, he held 
his hat so still; and yet how softly his eyes fell 
upon its crown, moving dreamily and yet with 
dread over its brown surface! He was smaller 
than his wife. His suit was broxvn, too, and he 
wore it neatly and carefully, as though he were 
murmuring, “Don’t look— no need to look— I am 
effaced.” But you have seen that expression too 
in silent children, who will tell you what they 
dreamed the night before in sudden, almost hilari- 
ous, bursts of confidence. 

Every now and then, as though he perceived 
some minute thing, a sudden alert, tantalized look 
would creep over the little man’s face, and he 
would gaze slowly around him, quite slyly. Then 
he would bow his head again; the expression 
would vanish; some inner refreshment had been 
denied him. Behind his head was a wall poster, 
dirty with time, showing an old-fashioned loco- 
motive about to crash into an open touring car 
filled with women in veils. No one in the station 
was frightened by the familiar poster, any more 
than they were aroused by the little man whose 
rising and drooping head it framed. Yet for a mo- 
ment he might seem to you to be sitting there 
quite filled with hope. 

Among the others in the station was a strong- 



The Key 59 

looking young man, alone, hatless, red haired, 
who was standing by the wall while the rest sat 
on benches. He had a small key in his hand and 
was turning it over and over in his fingers, nerv- 
ously passing it from one hand to the other, toss- 
ing it gently into the air and catching it again. 

He stood and stared in distraction at the other 
people; so intent and so wide was his gaze that 
anyone who glanced after him seemed rocked 
like a small boat in the wake of a large one. 
There was an excess of energy about him that 
separated him from everyone else, but in the mo- 
tion of his hands there was, instead of the craving 
for communication, something of reticence, even 
of secrecy, as the key rose and fell. You guessed 
that he was a stranger in town; he might have 
been a criminal or a gambler, but his eyes were 
widened with gentleness. His look, which traveled 
nvithout stopping for long anywhere, was a hur- 
ried focusing of a very tender and explicit regard. 

The color of his hair seemed to jump and 
move, like the flicker of a match struck in a wind. 
The ceiling lights were not steady but seemed 
to pulsate like a living and transient force, and 
made the young man in his preoccupation appear 
to tremble in the midst of his size and strength, 
and to fail to impress his exact outline upon the 
yellow walls. He was like a salamander in the 
fire. "Take care,” you wanted to say to him, and 



6o A Cv,7tain of Green 

yet also, “Come here.’’ Nervously, and quite apart 
in his distraction, he continued to stand tossing 
the key back and forth from one hand to the 
other. Suddenly it became a gestuix of abandon- 
ment; one hand stayed passive in the air, then 
seized too late: the key fell to the floor. 

Everyone, except Albert and Elbe Morgan, 
looked up for a moment. On the floor the key 
had made a fierce metallic sound like a challenge, 
a sound of seriousness. It almost made people 
jump. It was regarded as an insult, a very personal 
question, in the quiet peaceful room where the 
insects were tapping at the ceiling and each per- 
son was allowed to sit among his possessions and 
wait for an unquestioned departure. Little walls 
of reproach went up about them all. 

A flicker of amusement touched the young 
man’s face as he observed the startled but con- 
trolled and obstinately blank faces which turned 
toward him for a moment and then away. He 
walked over to pick up his key. 

But it had glanced and slid across the floor, 
and now it lay in the dust at Albert Morgan’s 
feet. 

Albert Morgan was indeed picking up the key. 
Across from him, the young man saw him ex- 
amine it, quite slowly, with wonder written all 
over his face and hands, as if it had fallen from 



The Key 6i 

the sky. Had he failed to hear the clatter? There 
was something wrong with Albert. . . . 

As if by decision, the young man did not ter- 
minate this wonder by claiming his key. He stood 
back, a peculiar flash of interest or of something 
more inscrutable, like resignation, in his lowered 
eyes. 

The little man had probably been staring at 
the floor, thinking. And suddenly in the dark sur- 
face the small sliding key had appeared. You could 
see memory seize his face, twist it and hold it. 
What innocent, strange thing might it have 
brought back to life— a fish he had once spied just 
below the top of the water in a sunny lake in the 
country when he was a child? This was just as 
unexpected, shocking, and somehow meaningful 
to him. Albert sat there holding the key in his 
wide-open hand. How intensified, magnified, 
really vain all attempt at expression becomes in 
the afflicted! It was with an almost incandescent 
delight that he felt the unguessed temperature 
and weight of the key. Then he turned to his 
wife. His lips were actually trembling. 

And still the young man waited, as if the strange 
joy of the little man took precedence with him 
over whatever need he had for the key. With sud- 
den electrification he saw Ellie slip the handle 
of her satchel purse from her wrist and with her 
fingers begin to talk to her husband. 



62 A Curtain of Gteen 

The others in the station had seen Ellie too; 
shallow pity washed over the wailing- room like 
a dirty wave foaming and creeping over a public 
beach. In quick mumblings from bench to bench 
people said to each other, “Deaf and dumb!” How 
ignorant they were of all that the young man was 
seeing! Although he had no way of knowing the 
words Ellie said, he seemed troubled enough at 
the mistake the little man must have made, at 
his misplaced wonder and joy. 

Albert was replying to his wife. On his hands 
he said to her, “I found it. Now it belongs to me. 
It is something important! Important! It means 
something. From now on we tvill get along bet- 
ter, have more understanding. . . . Maybe when 
we reach Niagara Falls we will even fall in love, 
the way other people have done. Maybe our mar- 
riage was really for love, after all, not for the 
other reason— both of us being afflicted in the 
same way, unable to speak, lonely because of that. 
Now you can stop being ashamed of me, for being 
so cautious and slow all my life, for taking my 
own t’me. . . . You can take hope. Because it 
was I who found the key. Remember that— I 
found it.” He laughed all at once, quite silently. 

Everyone stared at his impassioned little speech 
as it came from his fingers. They were embar- 
rassed, vaguely aware of some crisis and vaguely 
affronted, but unable to interfere; it was as though 



The Key 63 

they were the deaf-mutes and he the speaker. 
When he laughed, a few people laughed uncon- 
sciously with him, in relief, and turned away. 
But the young man remained still and intent, 
waiting at his little distance. 

“This key came here very mysteriously— it is 
bound to mean something,” the husband went 
on to say. He held the key up just before her eyes. 
“You are always praying; you believe in miracles; 
well, now, here is the answer. It came to me.” 

His wife looked self-consciously around the 
room and replied on her fingers, “You are always 
talking nonsense. Be quiet.” 

But she was secretly pleased, and when she saw 
him slowly look down in his old manner, she 
reached over, as if to retract what she had said, 
and laid her hand on his, touching the key for 
herself, softness making her worn hand limp. 
From then on they never looked around them, 
never saw anything except each other. They were 
so intent, so very solemn, wanting to have their 
symbols perfectly understood! 

“You must see it is a symbol,” he began again, 
his fingers clumsy and blurring in his excitement. 
“It is a symbol of something— something that we 
deserve, and that is happiness. We will find hap- 
piness in Niagara Falls.” 

And then, as if he were all at once shy even 
of her, he turned slightly away from her and slid 



64 A Curiam oj Green 

the key into his pocket. They sat staring down at 
the suitcase, their hands fallen in their laps. 

The young man slowly turned away from them 
and wandered back to the wall, where he took out 
a cigarette and lighted it. 

Outside, the night pressed around the station 
like a pure stone, in xvhich the little room might 
be transfixed and, for the preservation of this 
moment of hope, its future killed, an insect in 
amber. The short little train drexv in, stopped, 
and rolled axvay, almost noiselessly. 

Then inside, people were gone or turned in 
sleep or walking about, all changed from the way 
they had been. But the deaf-mutes and the loiter- 
ing young man were still in their places. 

The man was still smoking. He was dressed 
like a young doctor or some such person in the 
town, and yet he did not seem of the town. He 
looked very strong and active; but there was a 
startling quality, a willingness to be forever dis- 
tracted, even disturbed, in the very reassurance 
of his body, some alertness which made his 
strength fluid and dissipated instead of withheld 
and greedily beautiful. His youth by now did not 
seem an important thing about him; it was a 
medium for his activity, no doubt, but as he stood 
there frowning and smoking you felt some appre- 
hension that he would never express whatever 
might be the desire of his life in being young 



The Key 65 

and strong, in standing apart in compassion, in 
making any intuitive present or sacrifice, or in 
any way of action at all— not because there was 
too much in the world demanding his strength, 
but because he was too deeply aware. 

You felt a shock in glancing up at him, and 
when you looked away from the whole yellow 
room and closed your eyes, his intensity, as well 
as that of the room, seemed to have impressed 
the imagination with a shadow of itself, a black- 
ness together with the light, the negative beside 
the positive. You felt as though some exact, skill- 
ful contact had been made between the surfaces 
of your hearts to make you aware, in some pattern, 
of his joy and his despair. You could feel the full- 
ness and the emptiness of this stranger’s life. 

The railroad man came in swinging a lantern 
which he stopped suddenly in its arc. Looking 
uncomfortable, and then rather angry, he ap- 
proached the deaf-mutes and shot his arm out 
in a series of violent gestures and shrugs. 

Albert and Ellie Morgan were dreadfully 
shocked. The woman looked resigned for a mo- 
ment to hopelessness. But the little man— you were 
startled by a look of bravado on his face. 

In the station the red-haired man was speaking 
aloud— but to himself. “They missed their train!’’ 

As if in quick apology, the trainman set his 



66 J Curiam oj Cheen 

lantern down beside Albert’s loot, and hurried 
away. 

And as i£ completing a circle, the red-haired 
man walked over too and stood silently near the 
deaf-mutes. With a reproachful look at him the 
woman reached up and took off her hat. 

They began again, talking rapidly back and 
forth, almost as one person. The old routine of 
their feeling was upon them once more. Perhaps, 
you thought, staring at their similarity— her hair 
was yellow, too— they were children together- 
cousins even, afflicted in the same way, sent off 
from home to the state institute. . . . 

It was the feeling of conspiracy. They were in 
counter-plot against the plot of tho.se things that 
pressed down upon them from outside their 
knowledge and their ways of making themselves 
understood. It was obvious that it gave the wife 
her greatest pleasure. But you wondered, seeing 
Albert, whom talking seemed rather to dishevel, 
whether it had not continued to be a rough and 
violent game which Ellie, as the older and 
stronger, had taught him to play with her. 

“What do you think he wants?’’ she asked Al- 
bert, nodding at the red-haired man, who smiled 
faintly. And how her eyes shone! Who would 
ever know how deep her suspicion of the whole 



The Key 67 

outside world lay in her heart, how far it had 
pushed her! 

“What does he want?” Albert was replying 
quickly. “The key!” 

Of course! And how fine it had been to sit there 
with the key hidden from the strangers and also 
from his wife, who had not seen where he had put 
It. He stole up with his hand and secretly felt the 
key, which must have lain in some pocket nearly 
against his heart. He nodded gently. The key had 
come there, under his eyes on the floor in the sta- 
tion, all of a sudden, but yet not quite unexpected. 
That is the way things happen to you always. 
But Ellie did not comprehend this. 

Now she sat there as quiet as could be. It was 
not only hopelessness about the trip. She, too, 
undoubtedly felt something privately about that 
key, apart from what she had said or what he had 
told her. He had almost shared it with her— you 
realized that. He frowned and smiled almost at 
the same time. There was something— something 
he could almost remember but not quite— which 
would let him keep the key always to himself. 
He knew that, and he would remember it later, 
when he was alone. 

“Never fear, Ellie,” he said, a still little smile 
lifting his lip. “I’ve got it safe in a pocket. No 
one can find it, and there’s no hole for it to fall 
through.” 



68 


A Curtain of Green 

She nodded, but she was always doubting, al- 
ways anxious. You coidd look at hei troubled 
hands. How terrible it was, how strange, that 
Albert loved the key more than he loved Elbe! 
He did not mind missing the train. It showed in 
every line, every motion of his body, lire key 
was closer— closer. The whole story began to illu- 
minate them now, as if the lantern flame had been 
turned up. Elbe’s anxious, hovering body could 
wrap him softly as a cradle, but the secret mean- 
ing, that powerful sign, that reassurance he so 
hopefully sought, so assuredly deserved— that had 
never come. There was something lacking in 
Elbe. 

Had Elbe, with her suspicions of everything, 
come to know even things like this, in her way? 
How empty and nervous her red scrubbed hands 
were, how desperate to speak! Yes, she must re- 
gard it as unhappiness lying between them, as 
more than emptiness. She must worry about it, 
talk about it. You could imagine her stopping 
her churning to come out to his chair on the 
porch, to tell him that she did love him and would 
take care of him always, talking with the spotted 
sour milk dripping from her fingers. Just try to 
tell her that talking is useless, that care is nor 
needed . . . And sooner or later he would al- 
ways reply, say something, agree, and she would 
go away again. . . . 



The Key 69 

And Albert, with his face so capable of amaze- 
ment, made you suspect the funny thing about 
talking to Ellie. Until you do, declared his round 
brown eyes, you can be peaceful and content that 
everything takes care of itself. As long as you 
let it alone everything goes peacefully, like an 
uneventful day on the farm— chores attended to, 
woman working in the house, you in the field, 
crop growing as well as can be expected, the 
cow giving, and the sky like a coverlet over it all 
—so that you’re as full of yourself as a colt, in 
need of nothing, and nothing needing you. But 
when you pick up your hands and start to talk, 
if you don’t watch carefully, this security will run 
away and leave you. You say something, make an 
observation, just to answer your wife’s worryings, 
and everything is jolted, disturbed, laid open like 
the ground behind a plow, with you running 
along after it. 

But happiness, Albert knew, is something that 
appears to you suddenly, that is meant for you, 
a thing which you reach for and pick up and hide 
at your breast, a shiny thing that reminds you 
of something alive and leaping. 

Ellie sat there quiet as a mouse. She had un- 
clasped her purse and taken out a little card with 
a picture of Niagara Falls on it. 

“Hide it from the man,” she said. She did sus- 
pect him! The red-haired man had drawn closer. 



70 A Ctirtain of Green 

He bent and saw that it was a picture of Niagara 
Falls. 

“Do you see the little rail?” Albert began in 
tenderness. And Elbe loved to watch him tell her 
about it; she clasped her hands and began to smile 
and show her crooked tooth; she looked young: 
it was the way she had looked as a child. 

“That is what the teacher pointed to with her 
wand on the magic-lantern slide— the little rail. 
You stand right here. You lean up hard against 
the rail. Then you can hear Niagara Falls.” 

“How do you hear it?” begged Elbe, nodding. 

“You hear it with your whole self. You listen 
with your arms and your legs and your whole 
body. You’ll never forget what hearing is, after 
that.” 

He must have told her hundreds of times in his 
obedience, yet she smiled with gratitude, and 
stared deep, deep into the tinted picture of the 
waterfall. 

Presently she said, “By now, we’d have been 
there, if we hadn’t missed the train.” 

She did not even have any idea that it was miles 
and days away. 

She looked at the red-haired man then, her 
eyes all puckered up, and he looked away at last. 
He had seen the dust on her throat and a needle 
stuck in her collar where she’d forgotten it, with 
a thread running through the eye— the final de- 



The Key 71 

tails. Her hands were tight and wrinkled with 
pressure. She swung her foot a little below her 
skirt, in the new Mary Jane slipper with the hard 
toe. 

Albert turned away too. It was then, you 
thought, that be became quite frightened to think 
that if they hadn’t missed the train they would 
be hearing, at that very moment, Niagara Falls. 
Perhaps they would be standing there together, 
pressed against the little rail, pressed against each 
other, with their lives being poured through 
them, changing. . . . And how did he know what 
that would be like? He bent his head and tried 
not to look at his wife. He could say nothing. He 
glanced up once at the stranger, with almost a 
pleading look, as if to say, “Won’t you come 
with us?’’ 

“To work so many years, and then to miss the 
train,” Ellie said. 

You saw by her face that she was undauntedly 
wondering, unsatisfied, waiting for the future. 

And you knew how she would sit and brood 
over this as over their conversations together, 
about every misunderstanding, every discussion, 
sometimes even about some agreement between 
them that had been all settled— even about the 
secret and proper separation that lies between a 
man and a woman, the thing that makes them 
what they are in themselves, their secret life, their 



72 A Curtain of Green 

memory of the past, their childhood, their dreams. 
This to Ellie was unhappiness. 

They had told her when she was a little girl 
how people who have just been married have 
the custom of going to Niagara Falls on a wed- 
ding trip, to start their happiness: and that came 
to be where she put her hope, all of it. So she 
saved money. She worked harder than he did, you 
could observe, comparing their hands, good and 
bad years, more than was good for a woman. Year 
after year she had put her hope ahead of her. 

And he— somehow he had never thought that 
this time would come, that they might really go 
on the journey. He was never looking so far and 
so deep as Ellie— into the future, into the chang- 
ing and mixing of their lives together when they 
should arrive at last at Niagara Falls. To him it 
was always something postponed, like the paying 
off of the mortgage. 

But sitting here in the station, with the suit- 
case all packed and at his feet, he had begun to 
realize that this journey might, for a fact, take 
place. The key had materialized to show him the 
enormity of this venture. And after his first shock 
and pride he had simply reserved the key; he had 
hidden it in his pocket. 

She looked unblinking into the light of the 
lantern on the floor. Her face looked strong and 
terrifying,' all lighted and very near to his. But 



The Key 73 

there was no joy there. You hitew that she was 
very brave. 

Albert seemed to shrink, to retreat. . . . His 
trembling hand went once more beneath his coat 
and touched the pocket where the key was lying, 
waiting. Would he ever remember that elusive 
thing about it or be sure what it might really be 
a symbol of? ... His eyes, in their quick man- 
ner of filming over, grew dreamy. Perhaps he had 
even decided that it was a symbol not of happi- 
ness with Ellie, but of something else— something 
which he could have alone, for only himself, in 
peace, something strange and unlooked for which 
would come to him. . . . 

The red-haired man took a second key from 
his pocket, and in one direct motion placed it in 
Elbe’s red palm. It was a key with a large triangu- 
lar pasteboard tag on which was clearly printed, 
“Star Hotel, Room 2.” 

He did not wait to see any naore, but went out 
abruptly into the night. He stood still for a mo- 
ment and reached for a cigarette. As he held the 
match close he gazed straight ahead, and in his 
eyes, all at once wild and searching, there was 
certainly, besides the simple compassion in his 
regard, a look both restless and weary, very much 
used to the comic. You could see that he despised 
and saw the uselessness of the thing he had done. 



KEELA, THE OUTCAST 
INDIAN MAIDEN 


NE MORNING in summertime, 
when all his sons and daughters were off picking 
plums and Little Lee Roy was all alone, sitting 
on the porch and only listening to the screech 
owls away down in the woods, he had a surprise. 

First he heard white men talking. He heard 
two white men coming up the path from the high- 
way. Little Lee Roy ducked his head and held his 
breath; then he patted all around back of him 
for his crutches. The chickens all came out from 
under the house and waited attentively on the 
steps. 

The men came closer. It was the young man 
who was doing all of the talking. But when they 
got through the fence, Max, the older man, inter- 
rupted him. He tapped him on the arm and 
pointed his thumb toward Little Lee Roy. 

He said, “Bud? Yonder he is.” 

74 



Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden 75 

JduL the younger man kept straight on talking, 
in an explanatory voice. 

“Bud?” said Max again. “Look, Bud, yonder’s 
the only little clubfooted nigger man was ever 
around Cane Springs. Is he the party?” 

They came nearer and nearer to Little Lee Roy 
and then stopped and stood there in the middle 
of the yard. But the young man was so excited he 
did not seem to realize that they had arrived any- 
where. He was only about twenty years old, very 
sunburned. He talked constantly, making only 
one gesture— raising his hand stiffly and then mov- 
ing it a little to one side. 

“They dressed it in a red dress, and it ate 
chickens alive,” he said. “I sold tickets and I 
thought it was worth a dime, honest. They gimme 
a piece of paper with the thing wrote off I had 
to say. That was easy. ‘Keela, the Outcast Indian 
Maiden!’ I call it out through a pasteboard mega- 
phone. Then ever’ time it was fixin’ to eat a 
live chicken, I blowed the sireen out front.” 

“Just tell me. Bud,” said Max, resting back on 
the heels of his perforated tan-and-white sport 
shoes. “Is this nigger the one? Is that him sittin’ 
there?” 

Little Lee Roy sat huddled and blinking, a 
smile on his face. . . . But the young man did 
not look his way. 

“Just took the job that time. I didn’t mean to 



^6 A Curtain of Green 

—I mean, I meant to go to Port Arthur because 
my brother was on a boat,” he said. “My name 
is Steve, mister. But I worked with this show sell- 
ing tickets for three months, and I never would 
of knowed it was like that if it hadn’t been for that 
man.” He arrested his gesture. 

“Yeah, what man?” said Max in a hopeless 
voice. 

Little Lee Roy was looking from one white 
man to the other, excited almost beyond respect- 
ful silence. He trembled all over, and a look of 
amazement and sudden life came into his eyes. 

“Two years ago,” Steve was saying impatiently. 
“And we was travelin’ through Texas in those 
ole trucks.— See, the reason nobody ever come dost 
to it before was they give it a iron bar this long. 
And tole it if anybody come near, to shake the 
bar good at ’em, like this. But it couldn’t say 
nothin’. Turned out they’d tole it it couldn’t say 
nothin’ to anybody ever, so it just kind of mum- 
bled and growled, like a animal.” 

“Hee! hee!” This from Little Lee Roy, softly. 

“Tell me again,” said Max, and just from his 
look you could tell that everybody knew old Max. 
“Somehow I can’t get it straight in ray mind. Is 
this the boy? Is this little nigger boy the same as 
this Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden?” 

Up on the porch, above them. Little Lee Roy 



Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden 77 

gave Max a glance full of hilarity, and then bent 
the other way to catch Steve’s next words. 

“Why, if anybody was to even come near it or 
even bresh their shoulder against the rope it’d 
growl and take on and shake its iron rod. When 
it would eat the live chickens it’d growl somethin’ 
awful— you ought to heard it.” 

“Hee! hee!” It was a soft, almost incredulous 
laugh that began to escape from Little Lee Roy’s 
tight lips, a little mew of delight. 

“They’d throw it this chicken, and it would 
reach out an’ grab it. Would sort of rub over the 
chicken’s neck with its thumb an’ press on it good, 
an’ then it would bite its head off.” 

“O.K.,” said Max. 

“It skint back the feathers and stuff from the 
neck and sucked the blood. But ever’body said 
it was still alive.” Steve drew closer to Max and 
fastened his light-colored, troubled eyes on his 
face. 

“O.K.” 

“Then it would pull the feathers out easy and 
neat-like, awful fast, an’ growl the whole time, 
kind of moan, an’ then it would commence to eat 
all the white meat. I’d go in an’ look at it. I 
reckon I seen it a thousand times.” 

“That was you, boy?” Max demanded of Little 
Lee Roy unexpectedly. 

But Little Lee Roy could only say, “Hee! heel” 



78 A Cut lain of Green 

The little man at the head of the steps where the 
chickens sat, one on each step, and the two men 
facing each other below made a pyramid. 

Steve stuck his hand out lor silence. “They 
said— I mean, I said it, out front through the mega- 
phone, I said it myself, that it wouldn't cat nothin’ 
but only live meat. It was supposed to be a Indian 
woman, see, in this red di'ess an’ stockin’s. It didn’t 
have on no shoes, so when it drug its foot ever’- 
body could see. . . . When it come to the 
chicken’s heart, it w'ould eat that too, I'eal fast, 
and the heart would still be jumpin’.” 

“Wait a second, Bud,” said Max briefly. “Say, 
boy, is this white man here crazy?” 

Little Lee Roy burst into hysterical, depreca- 
tory giggles. He said, “Naw suh, don’t think so.” 
He tried to catch Steve’s eye, seeking apprecia- 
tion, crying, “Naw suh, don’t think he crazy, 
mista.” 

Steve gripped Max’s arm. “Wait! Wait!” he 
cried anxiously. “You ain’t listenin’. I want to 
tell you about it. You didn’t catch my name— 
Steve. You never did hear about that little nigger 
—all that happened to him? Lived in Cane 
Springs, Miss’ippi?” 

“Bud,” said Max, disengaging himself, “I don’t 
hear anything. I got a juke box, see, so I don’t 
have to listen.” 

“Look— I was really the one,” said Steve more 



Keeld^ 'I he Outcast Indian Maiden 79 

patiently, but nervously, as if he had been slowly 
breaking bad news. He walked up and down the 
bare-swept ground in front of Little Lee Roy’s 
porch, along the row of princess feathers and 
snow-on-the-mountain. Little Lee Roy’s turning 
head followed him. “I was the one— that’s what 
I’m tellin’ you.” 

“Suppose I was to listen to what every dope 
comes in Max’s Place got to say, Fd be nuts,” said 
Max. 

“It’s all me, see,” said Steve. “I know that. I 
was the one was the cause for it goin’ on an’ on an’ 
not bein’ found out— such an awful thing. It 
was me, what I said out front through the mega- 
phone.” 

He stopped still and stared at Max in despair. 

“Look,” said Max. He sat on the steps, and 
the chickens hopped off. “I know I ain’t nobody 
but Max. I got Max’s Place. I only run a place, 
understand, fifty yards down the highway. Liquor 
buried twenty feet from the premises, and no 
trouble yet. I ain’t ever been up here before. I 
don’t claim to been anywhere. People come to 
my place. Now. You’re the hitchhiker. You’re 
tellin’ me, see. You claim a lot of information. 
If I don’t get it I don’t get it and I ain’t com- 
plainin’ about it, see. But I think you’re nuts, 
and did from the first. I only come up here with 
you because I figured you’s crazy.” 



8o 


A Curtain of Green 

“Maybe you don’t believe I remember every 
word of it even now,” Steve was saying gently. 
“I think about it at night— that an’ drums on the 
midway. You ever hear drums on the midway?” 
He paused and stared politely at Max and Little 
Lee Roy. 

“Yeh,” said Max. 

“Don’t it make you feel sad. I remember how 
the drums was goin’ and I was yellin’, ‘Ladies and 
gents! Do not try to touch Keela, the Outcast 
Indian Maiden— she will only beat your brains 
out with her iron rod, and eat them alive!’ ” Steve 
waved his arm gently in the air, and Little Lee 
Roy drew back and squealed. “ ‘Do not go near 
her, ladies and gents! I’m warnin’ you!’ So no- 
body ever did. Nobody ever come near her. Until 
that man.” 

“Sure,” said Max. “That fella.” He shut his 
eyes. 

“Afterwards when he come up so bold, I re- 
membered seein’ him walk up an’ buy the ticket 
an’ go in the tent. I’ll never forget that man as 
long as I live. To me he’s a sort of— well— ” 

“Hero,” said Max. 

“I wish I could remember what he looked 
like. Seem like he was a tallish man with a sort 
of white face. Seem like he had bad teeth, but I 
may be wrong. I remember he frowned a lot. 



Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden 8i 

Kept frownin’. Whenever he’d buy a ticket, why, 
he’d frown.” 

‘‘Ever seen him since?” asked Max cautiously, 
still with his eyes closed. ‘‘Ever hunt him up?” 

‘‘No, never did,” said Steve. Then he went on. 
‘‘He’d frown an’ buy a ticket ever’ day we was in 
these two little smelly towns in Texas, sometimes 
three-four times a day, whether it was fixin’ to 
eat a chicken or not.” 

‘‘O.K., so he gets in the tent,” said Max. 

‘‘Well, what the man finally done was, he 
walked right up to the little stand where it was 
tied up and laid his hand out open on the planks 
in the platform. He just laid his hand out open 
there and said, ‘Come here,’ real low and quick, 
that-a-way.” 

Steve laid his open hand on Little Lee Roy’s 
porch and held it there, frowning in concentra- 
tion. 

‘‘I get it,” said Max. ‘‘He’d caught on it was 
a fake.” 

Steve straightened up. ‘‘So ever’body yelled to 
git away, git away,” he continued, his voice rising, 
‘‘because it was growlin’ an’ carryin’ on an’ shakin’ 
its iron bar like they tole it. When I heard all that 
commotion— boy! I was scared.” 

‘‘You didn’t know it was a fake.” 

Steve was silent for a moment, and Little Lee 



82 A Curlain of Green 

Roy held his breath, for fear everything was all 
over. 

“Look,” said Steve finally, his voice trembling 
“I guess I was supposed to Icel bad like this, and 
you wasn’t. I wasn’t supposed to ship out on that 
boat from Port Arthur and all like that. I’his 
other had to happen to me— not you all. Feelin’ 
responsible. You’ll be O.K., mister, but I won’t. 
I feel awful about it. That poor little old thing.” 

“Look, you got him right here,” said Max 
quickly. “See him? Use your eyes. He’s O.K., ain’t 
he? Looks O.K. to me. It’s just you. You’re nuts, 
is all.” 

“You know— when that man laid out his open 
hand on the boards, why, it just let go the iron 
bar,” continued Steve, “let it fall down like that 
—bang— and act like it didn’t know what to do. 
Then it drug itself over to where the fella was 
standin’ an’ leaned down an’ grabbed holt onto 
that white man’s hand as tight as it could an’ 
cried like a baby. It didn’t want to hit him!” 

“Heel hee! hee!” 

“No sir, it didn’t want to hit him. You know 
what it wanted?” 

Max shook his head. 

“It wanted him to help it. So the man said, ‘Do 
you wanta get out of this place, whoever you are?’ 
An’ it never answered— none of us knowed it 
could talk— but it just wouldn’t let that man’s 



Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden 83 

hand a-Ioose. It hung on, cryin’ like a baby. So 
the man says, ‘Well, wait here till I come back.’ ” 

“Uh-huh?” said Max. 

“Went off an’ come back with the sheriff. Took 
us ail to jail. But just the man owned the show 
and his son got took to the pen. They said I could 
go free. I kep’ tellin’ ’em I didn’t, know it wouldn’t 
bit me with the iron bar an’ kep’ tellin’ ’em I 
didn’t know it could tell what you was sayin’ 
to it.” 

“Yeh, guess you told ’em,” said Max. 

“By that time I felt bad. Been feelin’ bad ever 
since. Can’t hold onto a job or stay in one place 
for nothin’ in the world. They made it stay in 
jail to see if it could talk or not, and the first night 
it wouldn’t say nothin’. Some time it cried. And 
they undressed it an’ found out it wasn’t no out- 
cast Indian woman a-tall. It was a little clubfooted 
nigger man.” 

“Hee! hee!” 

“You mean it was this boy here— yeh. It was 
him.” 

“Washed its face, and it was paint all over it 
made it look red. It all come off. And it could 
talk— as good as me or you. But they’d tole it not 
to, so it never did. They’d tole it if anybody was 
to come near it they was cornin’ to git it— and for 
it to hit ’em quick with that iron bar an’ growl. 
So nobody ever come near it— until that man I 



84 A Curtain of Green 

was yellin’ outside, tellin’ ’em to keep away, keep 
away. You could see where they’d whup it. They 
had to whup it some to make it eat all the 
chickens. It was awful dirty. They let it go back 
home free, to where they got it in the first place. 
They made them pay its ticket from Little Oil, 
Texas, to Cane Springs, Miss ’ip pi.” 

“You got a good memory,” said Max. 

“The way it started was,” said Steve, in a won- 
dering voice, “the show was just travel in’ along in 
ole trucks through the country, and just seen this 
little deformed nigger man, sittin’ on a fence, and 
just took it. It couldn’t help it.” 

Little Lee Roy tossed his head back in a frenzy 
of amusement. 

“I found it all out later. I was up on the Ferris 
wheel with one of the boys— got to talkin’ up 
yonder in the peace an’ quiet— an’ said they just 
kind of happened up on it. Like a cyclone hap- 
pens: it wasn’t nothin’ it could do. It was just 
took up.” Steve suddenly paled through his sun- 
burn. “An’ they found out that back in Miss’ippi 
it had it a little bitty pair of crutches an’ could 
just go runnin’ on ’em!” 

“And there they are,” said Max. 

Little Lee Roy held up a crutch and turned it 
about, and then snatched it back like a monkey. 

“But if it hadn’t been for that man, I wouldn’t 
of knowed it till yet. If it wasn’t for him bein’ 



Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden 85 

so bold. If he hadn’t knowed what he was doin’.” 

“You remember that man this fella’s talkin’ 
about, boy?” asked Max, eying Little Lee Roy. 

Little Lee Roy, in reluctance and shyness, shook 
his head gently. 

“Naw suh, I can’t say as I remembas that ve’y 
man, suh,” he said softly, looking down where 
just then a sparrow alighted on his child’s shoe. 
He added happily, as if on inspiration, “Now I 
remembas this man.” 

Steve did not look up, but when Max shook 
with silent laughter, alarm seemed to seize him 
like a spasm in his side. He walked painfully over 
and stood in the shade for a few minutes, leaning 
his head on a sycamore tree. 

“Seemed like that man just studied it out an’ 
knowed it was somethin’ wrong,” he said pres- 
ently, his voice coming more remotely than ever. 
“But I didn’t know. I can’t look at nothin’ an’ 
be sure what it is. Then afterwards I know. Then 
I see how it was.” 

“Yeh, but you’re nuts,” said Max affably. 

“You wouldn’t of knowed it either!” cried 
Steve in sudden boyish, defensive anger. Then 
he came out from under the tree and stood again 
almost pleadingly in the sun, facing Max where 
he was sitting below Little Lee Roy on the steps. 
“You’d of let it go on an’ on when they made it 
do those things— just like I did.” 



86 A Curtain of Green 

“Bet I could tell a man from a woman and an 
Indian from a nigger though,” said Max. 

Steve scuffed the dust into little puffs with his 
worn shoe. The chickens scattered, alarmed at last. 

Little Lee Roy looked from one man to the 
other radiantly, his hands pressed over his grin- 
ning gums. 

Then Steve sighed, and as if he did not know 
what else he could do, he reached out and without 
any warning hit Max in the jaw with his fist. 
Max fell off the steps. 

Little Lee Roy suddenly sat as still and dark as 
a statue, looking on. 

“Say! Say!” cried Steve. He pulled shyly at Max 
where he lay on the ground, with his lips pursed 
up like a whistler, and then stepped back. He 
looked horrified. “How you feel?” 

“Lousy,” said Max thoughtfully. “Let me 
alone.” He raised up on one elbow and lay there 
looking all around, at the cabin, at Little I.ee 
Roy sitting cross-legged on the porch, and at Steve 
with his hand out. Finally he got up. 

“I can’t figure out how I could of ever knocked 
dotvn an athaletic guy like you. I had to do it,” 
said Steve. “But I guess you don’t understand. I 
had to hit you. First you didn’t believe me, and 
then it didn’t bother you.” 

“That’s all O.K., only hush,” said Max, and 
added, “Some dope is always giving me the low- 



Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden 87 

down on something, but this is the first time one 
of ’em ever got away with a thing like this. I got 
to watch out.” 

‘‘I hope it don’t stay black long,” said Steve. 

“I got to be going,” said Max. But he waited. 
“What you want to transact with Keela? You 
come a long way to see him.” He stared at Steve 
with his eyes wide open now, and interested. 

“Weil, I was goin’ to give him some money or 
somethin’, I guess, if I ever found him, only now 
I ain’t got any,” said Steve defiantly. 

“O.K.,” said Max. “Here’s some change for you, 
boy. Just take it. Go on back in the house. Go on.” 

Little Lee Roy took the money speechlessly, 
and then fell upon his yellow crutches and hopped 
with miraculous rapidity away through the door. 
Max stared after him for a moment. 

“As for you”— he brushed himself off, turned 
to Steve and then said, “When did you eat last?” 

“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Steve. 

“Not here,” said Max. “I didn’t go to ask you 
a question. Just follow me. We serve eats at Max’s 
Place, and I want to play the juke box. You eat, 
and I’ll listen to the juke box.” 

“Well . . .” said Steve. “But when it cools off 
I got to catch a ride some place.” 

“Toda)' while all you all was gone, and not a 
soul in de house,” said Little Lee Roy at the 



88 


A Curtain of Green 

supper table that night, “two white mens come 
heah to de house. Wouldn’t come in. But talks 
to me about de ole times when I use to be wid 
de circus—” 

“Hush up, Pappy,” said the children. 



WHY I LIVE AT THE 

P.O. 


Cv WAS getting along fine with 
Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my 
sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her hus- 
band and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! 
Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when 
he first appeared here in China Grove, taking 
“Pose Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke 
us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one 
side than the other, which is a deliberate, cal- 
culated falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is 
exactly twelve months to the day younger than 
I am and for that reason she’s spoiled. 

She’s always had anything in the world she 
wanted and then she’d throw it away. Papa-Daddy 
gave her this gorgeous Add-a-Pearl necklace when 
she was eight years old and she threw it away play- 
ing baseball when she was nine, with only two 
pearls. 

89 




go A Curtain of Green 

So as soon as she got married and moved away 
from home the first thing she did was separate! 
From Mr. Whitaker! This photographer wilh the 
popeyes she said she trusted. Came home from 
one of those towns . ip in Illinois and to our com- 
plete surprise brought this child of two. 

Mama said she like to made her drop dead for 
a second. “Here you had this marvelous blonde 
child and never so much as wrote your mother a 
word about it,” says Mama. “I’m thoroughly 
ashamed of you.” But of course she wasn’t. 

Stclla-Rondo just calmly takes off this hat, I 
wish you could see it. She says, “Why, Mama, 
Shirley-T.’s adopted, I can j>rove it.” 

“How?” says Mama, but all I says was, “H’m!” 
There I was over the hot stove, trying to stretch 
two chickens over five people and a completely 
unexpected child into the bargain, without one 
moment’s notice. 

“What do you mean— ‘H’m!’?” says Stella- 
Rondo, and Mama says, “I heard that, Sister.” 

I said that oh, I didn’t mean a thing, only that 
whoever Shirley-T. ivas, she was the spit-image of 
Papa-Daddy if he’d cut off his beard, which of 
course he’d never do in the world. Papa-Daddy’s 
Mama’s papa and sulks. 

Stella-Rondo got furious! She said, “Sister, I 
don’t need to tell you you got a lot of nerve and 
ahvays did have and I’ll thank you to make no 



Why I Live At the P.O. 91 

tuture reference to my adopted child whatsoever.” 

“Very well,” I said. “Very well, very well. Of 
course I noticed at once she looks like Mr. 
Whitaker’s "fde too. That frown. She looks like 
a cross between Mr. Whitaker and Papa-Daddy.” 

“Well, all I can say is she isn’t.” 

“She looks exactly like Shirley Temple to me,” 
says Mama, but Shirley-T. just ran away from 
her. 

So the first thing Stella-Rondo did at the table 
was turn Papa-Daddy against me. 

“Papa-Daddy,” she says. He was trying to cut 
up his meat. “Papa-Daddy!” I was taken com- 
pletely by surprise. Papa-Daddy is about a million 
years old and’s got this long-long beard. “Papa- 
Daddy, Sister says she fails to understand why you 
don’t cut off your beard.” 

So Papa-Daddy 1 -a-y-s down his knife and fork! 
He’s real rich. Mama says he is, he says he isn’t. 
So he says, “Have I heard correctly? You don’t 
understand why I don’t cut off my beard?” 

“Why,” I says, “Papa-Daddy, of course I un- 
derstand, I did not say any such of a thing, the 
idea!” 

He says, “Hussy!” 

I says, “Papa-Daddy, you know I wouldn’t any 
more want you to cut off your beard than the 
man in the moon. It was the farthest thing from 



ga A Curtain of Green 

my mind! Stella-Roiido sat there and made that 
up while she was eating breast of chicken.” 

But he says, “So the postmistress fails to under- 
stand why I don’t cut off my beard. Which job 
I got you through my influence with the govern- 
ment. ‘Bird’s nest’— is that what you call it?” 

Not that it isn’t the next to smallest P.O. in 
the entire state of Mississippi. 

I says, “Oh, Papa-Daddy,” I says, “I didn’t say 
any such of a thing, 1 never dreamed it was a bird’s 
nest, I have always been grateful though this is 
the next to smallest P.O. in the state of Missis- 
sippi, and I do not enjoy being referred to as a 
hussy by ray own grandfather.” 

But Stella-Rondo says, “Yes, you did say it too. 
Anybody in the world could of heard you, that 
had ears.” 

“Stop right there,” says Mama, looking at me. 

So I pulled my napkin straight back through 
the napkin ring and left the table. 

As soon as I was out of the I'oom Mama says, 
“Call her back, or she’ll starve to death,” but 
Papa-Daddy says, “This is the beard I started 
growing on the Coast when I was fifteen years 
old.” He would of gone on till nightfall if Shir- 
ley-T. hadn’t lost the Milky Way she ate in Cairo. 

So Papa-Daddy says, “I am going out and lie 
in the hammock, and you can all sit here and 
remember my words: I’ll never cut off my beard 



93 


Why I Live At the P.O. 

as long as I live, even one inch, and I don’t appre- 
ciate it in you at all.” Passed right by me in the 
hall and went straight out and got in the ham- 
mock. 

It would be a holiday. It wasn’t five minutes 
before Uncle Rondo suddenly appeared in the 
hall in one of Stella-Rondo’s flesh-colored kimo- 
nos, all cut on the bias, like something Mr. 
Whitaker probably thought was gorgeous. 

‘‘Uncle Rondo!” I says. “I didn’t know who 
that was! Where are you going?” 

“Sister,” he says, “get out of my way, I’m 
poisoned.” 

“If you’re poisoned stay away from Papa- 
Daddy,” I says. “Keep out of the hammock. Papa- 
Daddy will certainly beat you on the head if you 
come within forty miles of him. He thinks I de- 
liberately said he ought to cut off his beard after 
he got me the P.O., and I’ve told him and told 
him and told him, and he acts like he just don’t 
hear me. Papa-Daddy must of gone stone deaf.” 

“He picked a fine day to do it then,” says Uncle 
Rondo, and before you could say “Jack Robin- 
son” flew out in the yard. 

What he’d really done, he’d drunk another 
bottle of that prescription. He does it every single 
Fourth of July as sure as shooting, and it’s hor- 
ribly expensive. Then he falls over in the ham- 
mock and snores. So he insisted on zigzagging 



94 C It) lain of Green 

right on out to the hammock, looking like a 
half-wit. 

Papa-Daddy woke up with this horrible yell 
and right there without moving an inch lie tried 
to turn Uncle Rondo against me. I heard every 
word he said. Oh, he told Uncle Rondo I didn’t 
learn to read till I was eight years old and he 
didn’t see how in the world I ever got the mail 
put up at the P.O., much less read it all, and he 
said if Uncle Rondo could only fatliom the lengths 
he had gone to to get me that job! And lie said 
on the other hand he thought Stella-Roudo had 
a brilliant mind and deserved credit for getting 
out of town. All the time he was just lying thci'c 
swinging as pretty as you please and looping out 
his beard, and poor Uncle Rondo was pleading 
with him to slow down the hammock, it was 
making him as dizzy as a witch to watch it. But 
that’s what Papa-Daddy likes about a hammock. 
So Uncle Rondo was too dizzy to get turned 
against me for the time being. He’s Mama’s only 
brother and is a good case of a one-track mind. 
Ask anybody. A certified pharmacist. 

Just then I heard Stella-Rondo raising the up- 
stairs window. While she was married she got 
this peculiar idea that it’s cooler with the windows 
shut and locked. So she has to raise the window 
before she can make a soul hear her outdoors. 

So she raises the window and says, “Oh!” You 



Why I Live At the P.O. 95 

would have thought she was mortally wotinded. 

Uncle Rondo and Papa-Daddy didn’t even look 
up, but kept right on with what they were doing. 
I had to laugh. 

I flew up the stairs and threw the door open! 
I says, “What in the wide world’s the matter, 
Stella-Rondo? You mortally wounded?” 

“No,” she says, “I am not mortally wounded 
but I wish you would do me the favor of looking 
out that window there and telling me what you 
see.” 

So I shade my eyes and look out the window. 

“I see the front yard,” I says. 

“Don’t you see any human beings?” she says. 

“I see Uncle Rondo trying to run Papa-Daddy 
out of the hammock,” I says. “Nothing more. 
Naturally, it’s so suffocating-hot in the house, 
with all the windows shut and locked, everybody 
who cares to stay in their right mind will have 
to go out and get in the hammock before the 
Fourth of July is over.” 

“Don’t you notice anything different about 
Uncle Rondo?” asks Stella-Rondo. 

“Why, no, except he’s got on some terrible- 
looking flesh-colored contraption I wouldn’t be 
found dead in, is all I can see,” I says. 

“Never mind, you won’t be found dead in it, 
because it happens to be part of my trousseau, 
and Mr. Whitaker took several dozen photo- 



^6 A Curlain oj Green 

graphs of me in it,” says Stella-Rondo. “What 
on earth could Uncle Rondo mean by wearing 
part of my trousseau out in the broad open day- 
light without saying so much as ‘Kiss my foot,’ 
knowing I only got home this morning after my 
separation and hung my negligee up on the bath- 
room door, just as nervous as I could be?” 

“I’m sure I don’t kno'iv, and what do you ex- 
pect me to do about it?” I says. “Jump out the 
window?” 

■‘No, I expect nothing of the kind. I simply 
declare that Uncle Rondo looks like a fool in it, 
that’s all,” she says. “It makes me sick to my 
stomach.” 

“Well, he looks as good as he can,” I says. “As 
good as anybody in reason could.” I stood up for 
Uncle Rondo, please remember. And I said to 
Stella-Rondo, “I think I would do well not to 
criticize so freely if I were you and came home 
with a two-year-old child I had never said a word 
about, and no explanation whatever about my 
separation.” 

“I asked you the instant I entered this house 
not to refer one more time to my adopted child, 
and you gave me your word of honor you would 
not,” was all Stella-Rondo would say, and started 
fulling out every one of her eyebrows with some 
cheap Kress tweezers. 

So I merely slammed the door behind me and 



Why I Live At the P.O. 97 

went down and made some green-tomato pickle. 
Somebody had to do it. Of course Mama had 
turned both the niggers loose; she always said no 
earthly power could hold one anyway on the 
Fourth of July, so she wouldn’t even try. It turned 
out that Jaypan fell in the lake and came within 
a very narrow limit of drowning. 

So Mama trots in. Lifts up the lid and says, 
"H’m! Not very good for your Uncle Rondo in 
his precarious condition, I must say. Or poor 
little adopted Shirley-T. Shame on you!” 

That made me tired. I says, “Well, Stella-Rondo 
had better thank her lucky stars it was her in- 
stead of me came trotting in with that very pe- 
culiar-looking child. Now if it had been me that 
trotted in from Illinois and brought a peculiar- 
looking child of two, I shudder to think of the 
reception I’d of got, much less controlled the diet 
of an entire family.” 

“But you must remember. Sister, that you were 
never married to Mr. Whitaker in the first place 
and didn’t go up to Illinois to live,” says Mama, 
shaking a spoon in my face. “If you had I would 
of been just as overjoyed to see you and your little 
adopted girl as I was to see Stella-Rondo, when 
you wound up with your separation and came on 
back home.” 

“You would not,” I says. 

“Don’t contradict me, I would,” says Mama. 



98 A Curiam of Green 

But I said she couldn’t convince me though she 
talked till she was blue in the face. Then I said, 
“Besides, you know as well as I do that that child 
is not adopted.” 

“She most certainly is adopted,” says Mama, 
stiff as a poker. 

I says, “Why, Mama, Stclla-Rondo had her 
just as sure as anything in this world, and just 
too stuck up to admit it.” 

“Why, Sister,” said Mama. “Here I thought we 
were going to have a pleasant Fourth of July, and 
you start right out not believing a word your 
own baby sister tells you!” 

“Just like Cousin Annie Flo. Went to her grave 
denying the facts of life,” I remind Mama. 

“I told you if you ever mentioned Annie Flo’s 
name I’d slap your face,” says Mama, and slaps 
my face. 

“All right, you wait and see,” I says. 

“I,” says Mama, “I prefer to take my children’s 
word for anything when it’s humanly possible.” 
You ought to see Mama, she weighs two hundred 
pounds and has real tiny feet. 

Just then something perfectly horrible occurred 
to me. 

“Mama,” I says, “can that child talk?” I simply 
had to whisper! “Mama, I wonder if that child 
can be— you know— in any way? Do you realize,” 
I says, “that she hasn’t spoken one single, solitary 



Why I Live At the P.O. 99 

word to a human being up to this minute? This 
is the way she looks,” I says, and I looked like 
this. 

Well, Mama and I just stood there and stared at 
each other. It was horrible! 

‘‘I remember well that Joe Whitaker frequently 
drank like a fish,” says Mama. “I believed to my 
soul he drank chemicals.” And without another 
word she marches to the foot of the stairs and 
calls Stella-Rondo. 

“Stella-Rondo? O-o-o-o-o! Stella-Rondo!” 

‘What?” says Stella-Rondo from upstairs. Not 
even the grace to get up off the bed. 

‘‘Can that child of yours talk?” asks Mama. 

Stella-Rondo says, “Can she what?” 

“Talk! Talk!” says Mama. “Burdyburdyburdy- 
burdy!” 

So Stella-Rondo yells back, “Who says she 
can’t talk?” 

“Sister says so,” says Mama. 

“You didn’t have to tell me, I know whose 
word of honor don’t mean a thing in this house,” 
says Stella-Rondo. 

And in a minute the loudest Yankee voice I 
ever heard in my life yells out, “OE’m Pop-OE 
the Sailor-r-r-r Ma-a-an!” and then somebody 
jumps up and down in the upstairs hall. In an- 
other second the house would of fallen down. 

“Not only talks, she can tap-dance!” calls Stella- 



100 


A Cuilain of Green 

Rondo. “Which is inore than some people I 
won’t name can do.” 

“Why, the little precious darling thing!” Mama 
says, so surprised. “Just as smart as she tan be!” 
Starts talking baby talk right there. Then she 
turns on me. “Sister, you ought to be thoioughly 
ashamed! Run upstairs this instant and apologize 
to Stella-Rondo and Shirley-T.” 

“Apologize lor what?” I says. “I merely won- 
dered if the child was normal, that’s all. Now that 
she’s proved she is, why, I have nothing further 
to say.” 

But Mama just turned on her heel and flew 
out, furious. She ran right ujistairs and hugged 
the baby. She believed it was adopted. Stella- 
Rondo hadn’t done a thing but turn her against 
me from upstairs while I stood there helpless over 
the hot stove. So that made Mama, Papa-Daddy 
and the baby all on Stella-Rondo’s side. 

Next, Uncle Rondo. 

I must say that Uncle Rondo has been marvel- 
ous to me at various times in the past and I tvas 
completely unprepared to be made to jump out 
of my skin, the way it turned out. Once Stella- 
Rondo did something perfectly horrible to him— 
broke a chain letter from Flanders Field— and 
he took the radio back he had given her and gave 
it to me. Stella-Rondo was furious! For six months 
we all had to call her Stella instead of Stella- 



101 


Why I Live At the P.O. 

Rondo, or she wouldn’t answer. I always thought 
Uncle Rondo had all the brains of the entire 
family. Another time he sent me to Mammoth 
Cave, with all expenses paid. 

But this would be the day he was drinking that 
prescription, the Fourth of July. 

So at supper Stella-Rondo speaks up and says 
she thinks Uncle Rondo ought to try to eat a little 
something. So finally Uncle Rondo said he would 
try a little cold biscuits and ketchup, but that was 
all. So she brought it to him. 

“Do you think it wise to disport with ketchup 
in Stella-Rondo’s flesh-colored kimono?” I says. 
Trying to be considerate! If Stella-Rondo couldn’t 
watch out for her trousseau, somebody had to. 

“Any objections?” asks Uncle Rondo, just about 
to pour out all the ketchup. 

“Don’t mind what she says. Uncle Rondo,” says 
Stella-Rondo. “Sister has been devoting this solid 
afternoon to sneering out my bedroom window 
at the way you look.” 

“What’s that?” says Uncle Rondo. Uncle Rondo 
has got the most terrible temper in the world. 
Anything is liable to make him tear the house 
down if it comes at the wrong time. 

So Stella-Rondo says, “Sister says, ‘Uncle Rondo 
certainly does look like a fool in that pink ki- 
mono!’ ” 

Do you remember who it was really said that? 



102 A Curlain of Gieen 

Uncle Rondo spills out all the ketchup and 
jumps out of his chair and tears oil the kimono 
and throws it down oit tlic dirty floor and puts 
his foot on it. It had to be sent all the way to 
Jackson to the cleaners and re-plcated. 

“So that’s your opinion of your Uncle Rondo, 
is it?” he says. “I look like a fool, do I? Well, that’s 
the last straw. A whole day in this house with 
nothing to do, and then to hear you come out 
Tvith a remark like that behind my back!” 

“I didn’t say any such of a thing. Uncle Rondo,” 
I says, “and I’m not saying who did, cither. Why, 
I think you look all right. Just try to take care of 
yourself and not talk and eat at the same time,” 
I says. “I think you better go lie down.” 

“Ide down my foot,” says Uncle Rondo. I ought 
to of known by that he was fixing to do something 
perfectly horrible. 

So he didn't do anything that night in the pre- 
carious state he was in— just played Casino with 
Mama and Stclla-Rondo and Shirley-T. and gave 
Shirlcy-T. a nickel with a head on both sides. It 
tickled her nearly to death, and she called him 
“Papa.” But at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, he 
threw a whole five-ccnt package of some unsold 
one-inch firecrackers from the store as hard as he 
could into my bedroom and they every one went 
off. Not one bad one in the string. Anybody else, 
there ’d be one that wouldn’t go off. 



Why I Live At the P.O. 103 

Well, I’m just terribly susceptible to noise of 
any kind, the doctor has always told me I was 
the most sensitive person he had ever seen in his 
whole life, and I was simply prostrated. I couldn’t 
eat! People tell me they heard it as far as the 
cemetery, and old Aunt Jep Patterson, that had 
been holding her own so good, thought it was 
Judgment Day and she was going to meet her 
whole family. It’s usually so quiet here. 

And I’ll tell you it didn’t take me any longer 
than a minute to make up my mind what to do. 
There I was with the whole entire house on Stella- 
Rondo’s side and turned against me. If I have 
anything at all I have pride. 

So I just decided I’d go straight down to the 
P.O. There’s plenty of room there in the back, I 
says to myself. 

Well! I made no bones about letting the family 
catch on to what I was up to. I didn’t try to con- 
ceal it. 

The first thing they knew, I marched in where 
they were all playing Old Maid and pulled the 
electric oscillating fan out by the plug, and every- 
thing got real hot. Next I snatched the pillow I’d 
done the needlepoint on right ofi the davenport 
from behind Papa-Daddy. He went “Ugh!” I beat 
Stella-Rondo up the stairs and finally found my 
charm bracelet in her bureau drawer under a 
picture of Nelson Eddy. 



104 Cut lain of Green 

“So that’s the way the land lies,” says Uncle 
Rondo. There he was, piecing on the ham. “Well, 
Sister, I’ll be glad to donate my army cot if you 
got any place to set it up, providing you’ll leave 
right this minute and let me get some peace.” 
Uncle Rondo was in France. 

“Thank you kindly for the cot and ‘peace’ is 
hardly the word I would select if I had to resort 
to firecrackers at 6:30 a.m. in a young girl’s bed- 
room,” I says back to him. “And as to where I 
intend to go, you seem to forget my position as 
postmistress of China Grove, Mississippi,” I says. 
“I’ve always got the P.O.” 

Well, that made them all sit up and take notice. 

I went out front and started digging up some 
four-o’clocks to plant around the P.O. 

“Ah-ah-ah!” says Mama, raising the window. 
“Those happen to be my four-o’clocks. Every- 
thing planted in that star is mine. I’ve never 
known you to make anything grow in your life.” 

“Very well,” I says. “But I take the fern. Even 
you. Mama, can’t stand there and deny that I’m 
the one watered that fern. And I happen to know 
where I can send in a box top and get a packet of 
one thousand mixed seeds, no two the same kind, 
free.” 

“Oh, where?” Mama wants to know. 

But I says, “Too late. You ’tend to your house, 
and I’ll ’tend to mine. You hear things like that 



Why I Live At the P.O. 105 

all the time if you know how to listen to the radio. 
Perfectly marvelous offers. Get anything you want 
free.” 

So I hope to tell you I marched in and got that 
radio, and they could of all bit a nail in two, espe- 
cially Stella-Rondo, that it used to belong to, and 
she well knew she couldn’t get it back, I’d sue 
for it like a shot. And I very politely took the sew- 
ing-machine motor I helped pay the most on to 
give Mama for Christmas back in 1929, and a 
good big calendar, with the first-aid remedies on 
it. The thermometer and the Hawaiian ukulele 
certainly were rightfully mine, and I stood on the 
step-ladder and got all my watermelon-rind pre- 
serves and every fruit and vegetable I’d put up, 
every jar. Then I began to pull the tacks out of 
the bluebird wall vases on the archway to the 
dining room. 

“Who told you you could have those. Miss 
Priss?” says Mama, fanning as hard as she could. 

“I bought ’em and I’ll keep track of ’em,” I 
says. “I’ll tack ’em up one on each side the post- 
office window, and you can see ’em when you 
come to ask me for your mail, if you’re so dead to 
see ’em.” 

“Not I! I’ll never darken the door to that post 
office again if I live to be a hundred,” Mama says. 
“Ungrateful child! After all the money we spent 
on you at the Normal.” 



io6 A Curtain of Green 

“Me either/’ says Stella-Rondo. “You can just 
let my mail lie there and rot, for all I care. I’ll 
never come and relieve you of a single, solitary 
piece.” 

“I should worry,” I says. “And who you think’s 
going to sit down and write you all those big fat 
letters and postcards, by the way? Mr. Whitaker? 
Just because he was the only man ever dropped 
down in China Grove and you got him— unfairly 
—is he going to sit down and write you a lengthy 
correspondence after you come home giving no 
rhyme nor reason whatsoever for your separation 
and no explanation for the presence of that child? 
I may not have your brilliant mind, but I fail to 
see it.” 

So Mama says, “Sister, I’ve told you a thousand 
times that Stella-Rondo simply got homesick, and 
this child is far too big to be hers,” and she says, 
“Now, why don’t you all just sit down and play 
Casino?” 

Then Shirley-T. sticks out her tongue at me in 
this perfectly horrible way. She has no more man- 
ners than the man in the moon. I told her she 
’tvas going to cross her eyes like that some day and 
they’d stick. 

“It’s too lace to stop me now,” I says. “You 
should have tried that yesterday. I’m going to the 
P.O. and the only way you can possibly see me is 
to visit me there.” 



Why I Live At the P.O. 107 

So Papa-Daddy says, “You’ll never catch me 
setting foot in that post office, even if I should 
take a notion into my head to write a letter some 
place.’’ He says, “I won’t have you reachin’ out 
of that little old window with a pair of shears and 
cuttin’ off any beard of mine. I’m too smart for 

t 3i 

you! 

“We all are,’’ says Stella-Rondo. 

But I said, “If you’re so smart, where’s Mr. 
Whitaker?’’ 

So then Uncle Rondo says, “I’ll thank you from 
now on to stop reading all the orders I get on 
postcards and telling everybody in China Grove 
what you think is the matter with them,” but I 
says, “I draw my own conclusions and will con- 
tinue in the future to draw them.” I says, “If peo- 
ple want to write their inmost secrets on penny 
postcards, there’s nothing in the wide world you 
can do about it. Uncle Rondo.” 

“And if you think we’ll ever write another 
postcard you’re sadly mistaken,” says Mama. 

“Cutting off your nose to spite your face then,” 
I says. “But if you’re all determined to have no 
more to do with the U. S. mail, think of this: 
What will Stella-Rondo do now, if she wants to 
tell Mr. Whitaker to come after her?” 

“Wahl” says Stella-Rondo. I knew she’d cry. 
She had a conniption fit right there in the kitchen. 



io8 A Curtain of Creen 

“It will be interesting to sec how long she holds 
Out,” I says. “And now— I am leaving.” 

“Good-bye,” says Uncle Rondo. 

“Oh, I declare,” says Mama, “to think that a 
family of mine should c|uarrcl on the Fourth of 
July, or the day after, over Stclla-Rondo leaving 
old Mr. Whitaker and having the sweetest little 
adopted child! It looks like we’d all be glad!” 

“Wah!” says Stella-Rondo, and has a fresh con- 
niption fit. 

“He left her— you mark my words,” I says. 
“That’s Mr. Whitaker. I know Mr. Whitaker. 
After all, I knew him first. I said from the begin- 
ning he’d up and leave her. I foretold every single 
thing that’s happened.” 

“Where did he go?” asks Mama. 

“Probably to the North Pole, if he knows what's 
good for him,” I says. 

But Stella-Rondo just bawled and wouldn’t say 
another word. She flew to her room and slammed 
the door. 

“Now look what you’ve gone and done. Sister,” 
says Mama. “You go apologize.” 

“I haven’t got time, I’m leaving,” I says. 

“Well, what are you waiting around for?” asks 
Uncle Rondo. 

So I just picked up the kitchen clock and 
marched off, without saying “Kiss my foot" or 



Why I Live At the P.O. 109 

anything, and never did tell Stella-Rondo good- 
bye. 

There was a nigger girl going along on a little 
wagon right in front. 

“Nigger girl,” I says, “come help me haul these 
things down the hill. I’m going to live in the 
post office.” 

Took her nine trips in her express wagon. 
Uncle Rondo came out on the porch and threw 
her a nickel. 

And that’s the last I’ve laid eyes on any of my 
family or my family laid eyes on me for five solid 
days and nights. Stella-Rondo may be telling the 
most horrible tales in the world about Mr. Whita- 
ker, but I haven’t heard them. As I tell every- 
body, I draw my own conclusions. 

But oh, I like it here. It’s ideal, as I’ve been 
saying. You see, I’ve got everything cater-cornered, 
the way I like it. Hear the radio? All the war news. 
Radio, sewing machine, book ends, ironing board 
and that great big piano lamp— peace, that’s what 
I like. Butter-bean vines planted all along the 
front where the strings are. 

Of course, there’s not much mail. My family 
are naturally the main people in China Grove, 
and if they prefer to vanish from the face of the 
earth, for all the mail they get or the mail they 
write, why. I’m not going to open my mouth. 



1 10 


A Liiriaw. oj ureen 

Some ot the folks here in town are taking up for 
me and some turned against me. I know which is 
which. There are always people who wdll quit 
buying stamps just to get on the right side of 
Papa-Daddy. 

But here I am, and here I’ll stay. I want the 
^vorld to know I’m happy. 

And if Stella-Rondo should come to me this 
minute, on bended knees, and at tempi to explain 
the incidents of her life wdth Mr. Whitaker, I’d 
simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse 
to listen. 



THE WHISTLE 


v/ tiGHT fell. The darkness was 
thin, like some sleazy dress that has been worn 
and worn for many winters and always lets the 
cold through to the bones. Then the moon rose. 
A farm lay quite visible, like a white stone in 
water, among the stretches of deep woods in their 
colorless dead leaf. By a closer and more searching 
eye than the moon’s, everything belonging to the 
Mortons’ might have been seen— even to the tiny 
tomato plants in their neat rows closest to the 
house, gray and featherlike, appalling in their ex- 
posed fragility. The moonlight covered every- 
thing, and lay upon the darkest shape of all, the 
farmhouse where the lamp had just been blown 
out. 

Inside, Jason and Sara Morton were lying be- 
tween the quilts of a pallet which had been made 
up close to the fireplace. A fire still fluttered in 
the grate, making a drowsy sound now and then, 
and its exhausted light beat up and down the wall. 


III 



112 


A Curtain of Green 

across the rafters, and over the dark pallet where 
the old people lay, like a bird ti'ying to find its 
way out of the room. 

The long-spaced, tired breathing of Jason was 
the only noise besides the flutter of the fire. He 
lay under the cjuilt in a long shape like a bean, 
turned on his side to face the door. His lips opened 
in the dark, and in and out he bt'cathed, in and 
out, slowly and with a rise and fall, over and 
over, like a conversation or a tale— a question and 
a sigh. 

Sara lay on her back with her mouth agape, 
silent, but not asleep. She was staring at the dark 
and indistinguishable places among the rafters. 
Her eyes seemed opened too wide, the lids straiped 
and limp, like openings which have been stretched 
shapeless and made of no more use. Once a hissing 
yellow flame stood erect in the old log, and her 
small face and pale hair, and one hand holding 
to the edge of the cover, were illuminated for a 
moment, with shadows bright blue. Then she 
pulled the quilt clear over her head. 

Every night they lay trembling with cold, but 
no more communicative in their misery than a 
pair of window shutters beaten by a storm. Some- 
times many days, weeks went by without words. 
They were not really old—they were only fifty; 
still, their lives were filled with tiredness, with 
a great lack of necessity to speak, with poverty 



The Whistle 113 

which may have bound them like a disaster too 
great for any discussion but left them still separate 
and undesirous of sympathy. Perhaps, years ago, 
the long habit of silence may have been started in 
anger or passion. Who could tell now? 

As the fire grew lower and lower, Jason’s breath- 
ing grew heavy and solemn, and he was even be- 
yond dreams. Completely hidden, Sara’s body was 
as weightless as a strip of cane, there was hardly 
a shape to the quilt under which she was lying. 
Sometimes it seemed to Sara herself that it was 
her lack of weight which kept her from ever get- 
ting warm. 

She was so tired of the cold! That was all it 
could do any more— make her tired. Year after 
year, she felt sure that she would die before the 
cold was over. Now, according to the Almanac, it 
was spring. . . . But year after year it was always 
the same. The plants would be set out in their 
frames, transplanted always too soon, and there 
was a freeze. . . . When was the last time they 
had grown tall and full, that the cold had held 
off and there was a crop? 

Like a vain dream, Sara began to have thoughts 
of the spring and summer. At first she thought 
only simply, of the colors of green and red, the 
smell of the sun on the ground, the touch of leaves 
and of warm ripening tomatoes. Then, all hidden 
as she was under the quilt, she began to imagine 



114 ^ Cm tain of Green 

and remember the town of Dexter in the shipping 
season. There in her mind, dusty little Dexter be- 
came a theater for almost legendary festivity, a 
place of pleasure. On every road leading in, smil- 
ing farmers were bringing in wagonloads of the 
most beautiful tomatoes. The packing sheds at 
Dexter Station were all decorated— no, it was 
simply that the May sun was shining. Mr. Perkins, 
the tall, gesturing figure, stood in the very center 
of everything, buying, directing, waving yellow 
papers that must be telegrams, shouting with 
grand impatience. And it was he, after all, that 
owned their farm now. Train after train of empty 
freight cars stretched away, waiting and then 
being filled. Was it possible to have saved out ol 
the threat of the cold so many tomatoes in the 
world? Of course, for here marched in a perfect 
parade of Florida packers, all the way from 
Florida, tanned, stockingless, some of them tat- 
tooed. The music box was playing in the cafe 
across the way, and the crippled man that walked 
like a duck was back taking poses for a dime of 
the young people with their heads together. With 
shouts of triumph the men were getting drunk, 
and now and then a pistol went off somewhere. 
In the shade the children celebrated in tomato 
fights. A strong, heady, sweet smell hung over 
everything. Such excitement! Let the packers rest, 
if only for a moment, thought Sara. Stretch them 



The Whistle 


115 

out, stained with sweat, under the shade tree, and 
one can play the guitar. The girl wrappers listen 
while they work. What small brown hands, red 
with juice! Their faces are forever sleepy and 
flushed; when the men speak to them they laugh. 

. . . And Jason and Sara themselves are standing 
there, standing under the burning sun near the 
first shed, giving over their own load, watching 
their own tomatoes shoved into the process, swal- 
lowed away— sorted, wrapped, loaded, dispatched 
in a freight car— all so fast. . . . Mr. Perkins 
holds out his hard, quick hand. Shake it fast! How 
quickly it is all over! 

Sara, weightless under the quilt, could think of 
the celebrations of Dexter and see the vision of 
ripe tomatoes only in brief snatches, like the flare- 
up of the little fire. The rest of the time she 
thought only of cold, of cold going on before and 
after. She could not help but feel the chill of the 
here and now, which was not to think at all, but 
was for her only a trembling in the dark. 

She coughed patiently and turned her head to 
one side. She peered over the quilt just a little 
and saw that the fire had at last gone out. There 
was left only a hulk of red log, a still, red, bent 
shape, like one of Jason’s socks thrown down to 
be darned somehow. With only this to comfort 
her, Sara closed her eyes and fell asleep. 

The husband and wife now lay perfectly still 



ii6 yl Curtain of Green 

in the dark room, with Jason’s hoarse, slow breath- 
ing, like the commotion of some clumsy nodding 
old bear trying to climb a tree, heard by nobody 
at all. 

Every hour it was getting colder and colder. 
The moon, intense and tvhite as the snow that 
does not fail here, drew higher in the sky, in the 
long night, and more distant from the earth. The 
farm looked as tiny and still as a seashell, with 
the little knob of a house surrounded by its curved 
furrows of tomato plants. Cold like a white press- 
ing hand reached down and lay over the shell. 

In Dexter there is a great whistle which is 
blown when a freeze threatens. It is known every- 
where as Mr. Perkins’ whistle. Now it sounded out 
in the clear night, blast after blast. Over the 
countryside lights appeared in the windows of the 
farms. Men and women ran out into the fields 
and covered up their plants with whatever they 
had, while Mr. Perkins’ whistle blew and blew. 

Jason Morton was not waked up by the great 
whistle. On he slept, his cavernous breathing like 
roars coming from a hollow tree. His right hand 
had been thrown out, from some deepness he must 
have dreamed, and lay stretched on the cold floor 
in the very center of a patch of moonlight which 
had moved across the room. 

Sara felt herself waking. She knew that Mr. 



The Whistle 


117 

Perkins’ whistle was blowing, what it meant— and 
that it now remained for her to get Jason and go 
out to the field. A soft laxity, an illusion of 
warmth, flowed stubbornly down her body, and 
for a few moments she continued to lie still. 

Then she was sitting up and seizing her hus- 
band by the shoulders, without saying a word, 
rocking him back and forth. It took all her 
strength to wake him. He coughed, his roaring 
was over, and he sat up. He said nothing either, 
and they both sat with bent heads and listened 
for the whistle. After a silence it blew again, a 
long, rising blast. 

Promptly Sara and Jason got out of bed. They 
were both fully dressed, because of the cold, and 
only needed to put on their shoes. Jason lighted 
the lantern, and Sara gathered the bedclothes over 
her arm and followed him out. 

Everything was white, and everything looked 
vast and extensive to them as they walked over 
the frozen field. White in a shadowed pit, aban- 
doned from summer to summer, the old sorghum 
mill stood like the machine of a dream, with its 
long prostrate pole, its blunted axis. 

Stooping over the little plants, Jason and Sara 
touched them and touched the earth. For theh 
own knowledge, by their hands, they found every- 
thing to be true— the cold, the rightness of the 
warning, the need to act. Over the sticks set in 



ii8 A Curtain of Green 

among ihe plants they laid the quilts one by one, 
spreading them with a slow ingenuity. Jason took 
off his coat and laid it over the small tender 
plants by the side of the house. Then he glanced 
at Sara, and she reached down and pulled her dress 
off over her head. Her hair fell down out of its 
pins, and she began at once to tremble violently. 
The skirt was luckily long and full, and all the 
rest of the plants were covered by it. 

Then Sara and Jason stood for a moment and 
stared almost idly at the field and up at the sky. 

There was no wind. There was only the intense 
whiteness of moonlight. Why did this calm cold 
sink into them like the teeth of a trap? They bent 
their shoulders and walked silently back into the 
house. 

The room was not much warmer. They had for- 
gotten to shut the door behind them when the 
whistle xvas blowing so hard. They sat down to 
xvait for morning. 

Then Jason did a rare, strange thing. There 
long before morning he poured kerosene over 
some kindling and struck a light to it. Squatting, 
they got near it, quite gradually they drew to- 
gether, and sat motionless until it all burned 
down. Still Sara did not move. Then Jason, in 
his underwear and long blue trousers, went out 
and brought in another load, and the big cherry 



The Whistle 119 

log which of course was meant to be saved for 
the very last of winter. 

The extravagant warmth of the room had sent 
some kind of agitation over Sara, like her mem- 
ories of Dexter in the shipping season. She sat 
huddled in a long brown cotton petticoat, hold' 
ing onto the string which went around the waist. 
Her mouse-colored hair, paler at the temples, was 
hanging loose down to her shoulders, like a child’s 
unbound for a party. She held her knees against 
her numb, pendulant breasts and stared into the 
fire, her eyes widening. 

On his side of the hearth Jason watched the 
fire burn too. His breath came gently, quickly, 
noiselessly, as though for a little time he would 
conceal or defend his tiredness. He lifted his arms 
and held out his misshapen hands to the fire. 

At last every bit of the wood was gone. Now 
the cherry log was burned to ashes. 

And all of a sudden Jason was on his feet again. 
Of all things, he was bringing the split-bottomed 
chair over to the hearth. He knocked it to pieces. 

. . . It burned well and brightly. Sara never said 
a word. She did not move. . . . 

Then the kitchen table. To think that a solid, 
steady four-legged table like that, that had stood 
thirty years in one place, should be consumed in 
such a little while! Sara stared almost greedily at 
the waving flames. 



120 A Curtain of Green 

Then when that was over, Jason and Sara sat 
in darkness where their bed had been, and it 
was colder than ever. The lire the kitchen table 
had made seemed wonderful to them— as if what 
they had never said, and what could not be, had 
its life, too, after all. 

But Sara trembled, again pressing her hard 
knees against her breast. In the return of winter, 
of the night’s cold, something strange, like fright, 
or dependency, a sensation of complete helpless- 
ness, took possession of her. All at once, without 
turning her head, she spoke. 

“Jason . . .” 

A silence. But only for a moment. 

“Listen,” said her husband’s uncertain voice. 

They held very still, as before, with bent heads. 

Outside, as though it would exact something 
further from their lives, the whistle continued 
to blow. 



THE HITCH-HIKERS 


V_^OM HARRIS, a thirty-year-old 
salesman traveling in office supplies, got out of 
Victory a little after noon and saw people in Mid- 
night and Louise, but went on toward Memphis. 
It was a base, and he was thinking he would like 
to do something that night. 

Toward evening, somewhere in the middle of 
the Delta, he slowed down to pick up two hitch- 
hikers. One of them stood still by the side of the 
pavement, with his foot stuck out like an old root, 
but the other was playing a yellow guitar which 
caught the late sun as it came in a long straight 
bar across the fields. 

Harris would get sleepy driving. On the road 
he did some things rather out of a dream. And 
the recurring sight of hitch-hikers waiting against 
the sky gave him the flash of a sensation he had 
known as a child: standing still, with nothing to 
touch him, feeling tall and having the world come 
all at once into its round shape underfoot and rush 

I2I 



122 A Curtain of Green 

and turn through space and make his stand very 
precarious and lonely. He opened (he car door. 

“How you do?” 

“How you do?” 

Harris spoke to hitch-hikers almost formally. 
Now resuming his speed, he moved over a little 
in the seat. There was no room in the back for 
anybody. The man with the guitar was riding 
with it between his legs. Harris reached over and 
flicked on the radio. 

“Well, music!” said the man with the guitar. 
Presently he began to smile. “Well, we been there 
a whole day in that one spot,” he said softly. “Seen 
the sun go clear over. Course, part of the time 
we laid down under that one tree and taken out 
ease.” 

They rode without talking while the sun went 
dotvn in red clouds and the radio program 
changed a few times. Harris switched on his lights. 
Once the man with the guitar started to sing 
“The One Rose That’s Left in My Heart,” which 
came over the air, played by the Aloha Boys. 
Then in shyness he stopped, but made a streak on 
the radio dial with his blackly calloused finger 
tip. 

“I ’preciate them big ’lectric gittars some have,” 
he said. 

“Where are you going?” 

“Looks like north.” 



123 


The Hitch-Hikers 

“It’s north,” said Harris. “Smoke?” 

The other man held out his hand. 

“Well . . . rarely,” said the man with the gui 
tar. 

At the use of the unexpected word, Harris’s 
cheek twitched, and he handed over his pack of 
cigarettes. All three lighted up. The silent man 
held his cigarette in front of him like a piece of 
money, between his thumb and forefinger. Harris 
realized that he wasn’t smoking it, but was watch- 
ing it burn. 

“My! gittin’ night agin,” said the man with the 
guitar in a voice that could assume any social sur- 
prise. 

“Anything to eat?” asked Harris. 

The man gave a pluck to a low string and 
glanced at him. 

“Dewberries,” said the other man. It was his 
only remark, and it was delivered in a slow and 
pondering voice. 

“Some nice little rabbit come skinnin’ by,” said 
the man with the guitar, nudging Harris with a 
slight punch in his side, “but it run off the way 
it come.” 

The other man was so bogged in inarticulate 
anger that Harris could imagine him running 
down a cotton row after the rabbit. He smiled 
but did not look around. 



124 ^ Curtain of Greeti 

“Now to look out for a place to sleep— is that 
it?” he rernai'ked doggedly. 

A pluck ol the strings again, and the man 
yawned. 

There was a little town coming up; the lights 
showed for twenty miles in the flat land. 

“Is that Dulcie?” Harris yawned too. 

“I bet you ain’t got no idea where all I’ve 
slep’,” the man said, turning around in his seat 
and speaking directly to Harris, with laughter 
in his face that in the light of a road sign appeared 
strangely teasing. 

“I could eat a hamburger,” said Harris, swing- 
ing out of the road under the sign in some auto- 
matic gesture of evasion. He looked out of the 
window, and a girl in red pants leaped onto the 
running board. 

“Three and three beers?” she asked, smiling, 
with her head poked in. “Hi,” she said to Harris. 

“How are you?” said Harris. “That’s right.” 

“My,” said the man with the guitar. “Red 
sailor-boy britches.” Harris listened for the guitar 
note, but it did not come. “But not purty,” he 
said. 

The screen door of the joint whined, and a 
man’s voice called, “Come on in, boys, we got 
girls.” 

Harris cut off the radio, and they listened to 
the nickelodeon which was playing inside the joint 



The Hitch-Hikers 125 

and turning the window blue, red and green in 
turn. 

“Hi,” said the car-hop again as she came out 
with the tray. “Looks like rain.” 

They ate the hamburgers rapidly, without talk- 
ing. A girl came and looked out of the window 
of the joint, leaning on her hand. The same couple 
kept dancing by behind her. There was some- 
thing brassy playing, a swing record of “Love, 
Oh Love, Oh Careless Love.” 

“Same songs ever’where,” said the man with 
the guitar softly. “I come down from the hills. 
. . . We had us owls for chickens and fox for 
yard dogs but we sung true.” 

Nearly every time the man spoke Harris’s cheek 
twitched. He was easily amused. Also, he recog- 
nized at once any sort of attempt to confide, and 
then its certain and hasty retreat. And the more 
anyone said, the further he was drawn into a 
willingness to listen. I’ll hear him play his guitar 
yet, he thought. It had got to be a pattern in his 
days and nights, it was almost automatic, his listen- 
ing, like the way his hand went to his pocket 
for money. 

“That’n’s most the same as a ballat,” said the 
man, licking mustard off his finger. “My ma, she 
was the one for ballats. Little in the waist as a 
dirt-dauber, but her voice carried. Had her a 
whole lot of tunes. Long ago dead an’ gone. Pa ’d 



laO ii Cuiiam of (heeii 

come home from the courthouse drunk as a wheel- 
barrow, and she’d just pick uj) an’ go sit on the 
front step facin’ the hill an’ sing. Evcr’thing she 
knowed, she’d sing. Dead an’ gone, an’ the house 
burned down.” He gulped at his beer. His foot 
was patting. 

“This,” said Harris, touching one of the keys 
on the guitar. “Couldn’t you stop somewhere 
along here and make money playing this?” 

Of course it was by the guitar that he had 
known at once that they were not mere hitch- 
hikers. They were tramps. They were full blown, 
abandoned to this. Both of them were. But when 
he touched it he knew obscurely that it was the 
yellow guitar, that bold and gay burden in the 
tramp’s arms, that had caused him to stop and pick 
them up. 

The man hit it flat with the palm of his hand. 

“This box? Just play it for myself.” 

Harris laughed delightedly, but somehow he 
had a desire to tease him, to make him swear to 
his freedom. 

“You wouldn’t stop and play somewhere like 
this? For them to dance? When you know all the 
songs?” 

Now the fellow laughed out loud. He turned 
and spoke completely as if the other man could 
not hear him. “Well, but right now I got him.” 

“Him?” Harris stared ahead 



The Hitch-Hikers 137 

“He’d gripe. He don’t like foolin’ around. He 
wants to git on. You always git a partner got no- 
tions.” 

The other tramp belched. Harris laid his hand 
on the horn. 

“Hurry back,” said the car-hop, opening a 
heart-shaped pocket over her heart and dropping 
the tip courteously within. 

“Aw river!” sang out the man with the guitar. 

As they pulled out into the road again, the 
other man began to lift a beer bottle, and stared 
beseechingly, with his mouth full, at the man with 
the guitar. 

“Drive back, mister. Sobby forgot to give her 
back her bottle. Drive back.” 

“Too late,” said Harris rather firmly, speeding 
on into Dulcie, thinking, I was about to take di- 
rections from him. 

Harris stopped the car in front of the Dulcie 
Hotel on the square. 

“ ’Predated it,” said the man, taking up his 
guitar. 

“Wait here.” 

They stood on the walk, one lighted by the 
street light, the other in the shadow of the statue 
of the Confederate soldier, both caved in and giv- 
ing out an odor of dust, both sighing with obedi- 
ence. 



128 J Cuilain o/ Green 

Harris went across the yard and np the one step 
into the hotel. 

Mr. Gene, the proprietor, a white-haired man 
with little dark freckles all o\''er his face and hands, 
looked up and shoved out his arm at the same 
time. 

“If he ain’t back.” He gi'inned. “Been about 
a month to the day— I was just remarking.” 

“Mr. Gene, I ought to go on, but I got two fel- 
lows out front. O.K., but they’ve just got nowhere 
to sleep tonight, and you know that little back 
porch.” 

“Why, it’s a beautiful night out!” bellowed 
Mr. Gene, and he laughed silently. 

“They’d get fleas in your bed,” said Harris, 
showing the back of his hand. “But you know 
that old porch. It’s not so bad. I slept out there 
once, I forget how.” 

The proprietor let his laugh out like a flood. 
Then he sobered abruptly. 

“Sure. O.K.,” he said. “Wait a minute— Mike’s 
sick. Come here, Mike, it’s just old Harris passin’ 
through.” 

Mike was an ancient collie dog. He rose from a 
quilt near the door and moved over the square 
brown rug, stiffly, like a table walking, and shoved 
himself between the men, swinging his long head 
from Mr. Gene’s hand to Harris’s and bearing 



The Hitch-Hikers 129 

down motionless with his jaw in Harris’s palm. 

“You sick, Mike?” asked Harris. 

“Dyin’ of old age, that’s what he’s doin’!” 
blurted the proprietor as if in anger. 

Harris began to stroke the dog, but the famili- 
arity in his hands changed to slowness and hesi- 
tancy. Mike looked up out of his eyes. 

“His spirit’s gone. You see?” said Mr. Gene 
pleadingly. 

“Say, look,” said a voice at the front door. 

“Come in, Cato, and see poor old Mike,” said 
Mr. Gene. 

“I knew that was your car, Mr. Harris,” said 
the boy. He was nervously trying to tuck a Bing 
Crosby cretonne shirt into his pants like a real 
shirt. Then he looked up and said, “They was 
tryin’ to take your car, and down the street one of 
’em like to bust the other one’s head wide op’m 
with a bottle. Looks like you would ’a’ heard the 
commotion. Everybody’s out there. I said, ‘That’s 
Mr. Tom Harris’s car, look at the out-of-town 
license and look at all the stuff he all time carries 
around with him, all bloody.’ ” 

“He’s not dead though,” said Harris, kneeling 
on the seat of his car. 

It was the man with the guitar. The little ceil- 
ing light had been turned on. With blood stream- 
ing from his broken head, he was slumped down 
upon the guitar, his legs bowed around it, his arms 



130 A Curtain of Crteen 

at either side, his whole body limp in the posture 
of a bareback rider. Harris was aware of the other 
face not a yard away: the man the guitar player 
had called Sobby was standing on the curb, with 
two men unnecessarily holding him. He looked 
more like a bystander than any of the rest, except 
that he still held the beer bottle in his right hand. 

“Looks like if he was fixin’ to hit him, Jie would 
of hit him with that gittar,” said a voice. “That 
'd be a real good thing to hit somebody with. 
Whang!” 

“The way I figure this thing out is,” said a 
penetrating voice, as if a woman were explaining 
it all to her husband, “the men was left to ’em- 
selves. So— that ’n’ yonder wanted to make off with 
the car— he’s the bad one. So the good one says, 
‘Naw, that ain’t right.’ ” 

Or was it the other way around? thought Harris 
dreamily. 

“So the other one says bam! bam! He whacked 
him over the head. And so dumb— right where 
the movie was letting out.” 

“Who’s got my car keys!” Harris kept shout- 
ing. He had, without realizing it, kicked away 
the prop, the guitar; and he had stopped the blood 
with something. 

Nobody had to tell him where the ramshackle 
little hospital was— he had been there once be- 
fore, on a Delta trip. With the constable scuttling 



The Hitch-Hikers 131 

along after and then riding on the running board, 
glasses held tenderly in one fist, the handcuffed 
Sobby dragged alongside by the other, with a 
long line of little boys in flowered shirts accom- 
panying him on bicycles, riding in and out of the 
headlight beam, with the rain falling in front of 
him and with Mr. Gene shouting in a sort of plea 
from the hotel behind and Mike beginning to 
echo the barking of the rest of the dogs, Harris 
drove in all carefulness down the long tree-dark 
street, with his wet hand pressed on the horn. 

The old doctor came down the walk and, join- 
ing them in the car, slowly took the guitar player 
by the shoulders. 

“I ’spec’ he gonna die though,” said a colored 
child’s voice mournfully. “Wonder who goin’ to 
git his box?” 

In a room on the second floor of the two-story 
hotel Harris put on clean clothes, while Mr. Gene 
lay on the bed with Mike across his stomach. 

“Ruined that Christmas tie you came in.” The 
proprietor was talking in short breaths. “It took 
it out of Mike, I’m tellin’ you.” He sighed. “First 
time he’s barked since Bud Milton shot up that 
Chinese.” He lifted his head and took a long 
swallow of the hotel whisky, and tears appeared 
in his warm brown eyes. “Suppose they’d done 
it on the porch.” 



igs A Curtain of Green 

The phone rang. 

“See, everybody knows you’re here,’’ said Mr. 
Gene. 

“Ruth?” he said, lifting the receiver, his voice 
almost contrite. 

But it was for the proprietor. 

When he had hung up he said, “That little 
peanut— he ain’t ever goin’ to learn which end 
is up. The constable. Got a nigger already in the 
jail, so he’s runnin’ round to find a place to put 
this fella of yours with the bottle, and damned 
if all he can think of ain’t the hotel!’’ 

“Hell, is he going to spend the night with me?’’ 

“Well, the same thing. Across the hall. The 
other fella may die. Only place in town with a 
key but the bank, he says.’’ 

“What time is it?’’ asked Harris all at once. 

“Oh, it ain’t late” said Mr. Gene. 

He opened the door for Mike, and the two men 
followed the dog slowly down the stairs. The light 
was out on the landing. Harris looked out of the 
old half-open stained-glass window. 

“Is that rain?’’ 

“It’s been rainin’ since dark, but you don't ever 
know a thing like that— it’s proverbial.’’ At the 
desk he held up a brown package. “Here. I sent 
Cato after some Memphis whisky for you. He had 
to do something.” 

“Thanks.” 



The Hitch-Hikers 133 

"‘I’ll see you. I don’t guess you’re goin’ to get 
away very shortly in the mornin’. I’m real sorry 
they did it in your car if they were goin’ to do it.” 

“That’s all right,” said Harris. “You’d better 
have a little of this.” 

“That? It ’d kill me,” said Mr. Gene. 

In a drugstore Harris phoned Ruth, a woman 
he knew in town, and found her at home having 
a party. 

“Tom Harris! Sent by heaven!” she cried. “1 
was wondering what I’d do about Carol— this 
baby!” 

“What’s the matter with her?” 

“No date.” 

Some other people wanted to say hello from 
the party. He listened awhile and said he’d be 
out. 

This had postponed the call to the hospital. 
He put in another nickel. . . . There was noth- 
ing new about the guitar player. 

“Like I told you,” the doctor said, “we don’t 
have the facilities for giving transfusions, and he’s 
been moved plenty without you taking him to 
Memphis.” 

Walking over to the party, so as not to use his 
car, making the only sounds in the dark wet 
street, and only partly aware of the indeterminate 
shapes of houses with their soft-shining fanlights 



134 Curtahi oj Green 

marking them off, there with the rain falling mist- 
like through the trees, he almost forgot what town 
he was in and which house he was bound for. 

Ruth, in a long dark dress, leaned against an 
open door, laughing. From inside came the sounds 
of at least two people playing a duet on the piano. 

“He would come like this and get all wet!” 
she cried over her shoulder into the room. She 
was leaning back on her hands. “What’s the mat- 
ter with your little blue car? I hope you brought 
us a present.” 

He went in with her and began shaking hands, 
and set the bottle wrapped in the paper sack on 
a table. 

“He never forgets!” cried Ruth. 

“Drinkin’ whisky!” Everybody was noisy again. 

“So this is the famous ‘he’ that everybody talks 
about all the time,” pouted a girl in a white dress. 
“Is he one of your cousin.s, Ruth?” 

“No kin of mine, he’s nothing but a vagabond,” 
said Ruth, and led Harris off to the kitchen by 
the hand. 

I wish they’d call me “you” when I’ve got here, 
he thought tircdly. 

“More has gone on than a little bit,” she said, 
and told him the news while he poured fresh 
drinks into the glasses. When she accused him of 
nothing, of no carelessness or disregard of her 



The Hitch-Hikers 135 

feelings, he was fairly sure she had not heard 
about the assault in his car. 

She was looking at him closely. “Where did 
you get that sunburn?” 

“Well, I had to go to the Coast last week,” he 
said. 

“What did you do?” 

“Same old thing.” He laughed; he had started 
to tell her about something funny in Bay St. 
Louis, where an eloping couple had flagged him 
down in the residential section and threatened to 
break up if he would not carry them to the next 
town. Then he remembered how Ruth looked 
when he mentioned other places where he stopped 
on trips. 

Somewhere in the house the phone rang and 
rang, and he caught himself jumping. Nobody 
was answering it. 

“I thought you’d quit drinking,” she said, pick- 
ing up the bottle. 

“I start and quit,” he said, taking it from her 
and pouring his drink. “Where’s my date?” 

“Oh, she’s in Leland,” said Ruth. 

They all drove over in two cars to get her. 

She was a slight little thing, with her night- 
gown in some sort of little bag. She came out 
when they blew the horn, before he could go in 
after her. , . , 



136 A Curtain of Green 

“Lei’s go holler off the bridge,’’ said somebody 
in the car ahead. 

They drove over a little gravel road, miles 
through the misty fields, and came to the bridge 
out in the middle of nowhere. 

“Let’s dance,’’ said one of the boys. He grabbed 
Carol around the waist, and they began to tango 
over the boards. 

“Did you miss me?’’ asked Ruth. She stayed 
by him, standing in the road. 

“Woo-hoo!’’ they cried. 

“I wish I knew what makes it holler back,’’ 
said one girl. “There’s nothing anywhere. Some 
of my kinfolks can’t even hear it.’’ 

“Yes, it’s funny,’’ said Harris, with a cigarette 
in his mouth. 

“Some people say it’s an old steamboat got lost 
once.’’ 

“Might be.’’ 

They drove around and waited to see if it 
would stop raining. 

Back in the lighted rooms at Ruth’s he saw 
Carol, his date, give him a strange little glance. 
At the moment he was serving her with a drink 
from the tray. 

“Are you the one everybody’s ’miratin’ and 
gyratin’ over?’’ she said, before she would put her 
hand out. 

“Yes,’’ he said, “I come from afar.’’ He placed 



The Hitch-Hikers 


137 

the strongest drink from the tray in her hand, 
tvith a little flourish. 

“Hurry back!” called Ruth. 

In the pantry Ruth came over and stood by 
him while he set more glasses on the tray and then 
followed him out to the kitchen. Was she at all 
curious about him? he wondered. For a moment, 
when they were simply close together, her lips 
parted, and she stared off at nothing; her jealousy 
seemed to let her go free. The rainy wind from 
the back porch stirred her hair. 

As if under some illusion, he set the tray down 
and told her about the two hitch-hikers. 

Her eyes flashed. 

“What a— stupid thing!” Furiously she seized 
the tray when he reached for it. 

The phone was ringing again. Ruth glared at 
him. 

It was as though he had made a previous en- 
gagement with the hitch-hikers. 

Everybody was meeting them at the kitchen 
door. 

“Aha!” cried one of the men, Jackson. “He 
tries to put one over on you, girls. Somebody just 
called up, Ruth, about the murder in Tom’s car.” 

“Did he die?” asked Harris, without moving. 

“I knew all about it!” cried Ruth, her cheeks 
flaming. “He told me all about it. It practically 
ruined his car. Didn’t it!” 



A Curiam of Green 

“Wouldn’t he get into something crazy like 
that?’’ 

“It’s because he’s an angel,” said the girl named 
Carol, his date, speaking in a hollow voice from 
her highball glass. 

“Who phoned?” asked Harris. 

“Old Mrs. Daggett, that old lady about a mil- 
lion years old that’s always calling up. She was 
right there.” 

Harris phoned the doctor’s home and tvoke 
the doctor’s wife. The guitar player was still the 
same. 

“This is so exciting, tell us all,” said a fat boy. 
Harris knew he lived fifty miles up the river and 
iiad driven down under the impression that there 
would be a bridge game. 

“It was just a fight.” 

“Oh, he wouldn’t tell you, he never talks. I’ll 
tell you,” said Ruth. “Get your drinks, for good- 
ness’ sake.” 

So the incident became a story. Harris grew 
very tired of it. 

“It’s marvelous the way he always gets in with 
somebody and then something happens,” said 
Ruth, her eyes completely black. 

“Oh, he’s my hero,” said Carol, and she went 
out and stood on the back porch. 

“Maybe you’ll still be here tomorrow,” Ruth 



The Hdch-Hikers 139 

said to Harris, taking his arm. "Will you be de- 
tained, maybe?” 

“If he dies,” said Harris. 

He told them all good-bye. 

“Let’s all go to Greenville and get a Coke," 
said Ruth. 

“No,” he said. “Good night.” 

“ ‘Aw river,’ ” said the girl in the white dress. 
“Isn’t that what the little man said?” 

“Yes,” said Harris, the rain falling on him, 
and he refused to spend the night or to be taken 
in a car back to the hotel. 

In the antlered lobby, Mr. Gene bent over 
asleep under a lamp by the desk phone. His 
freckles seemed to come out darker when he was 
asleep. 

Harris woke him. “Go to bed,” he said. “What 
was the idea? Anything happened?” 

“I just wanted to tell you that little buzzard’s 
up in 202. Locked and double-locked, handcufEed 
to the bed, but I wanted to tell you.” 

“Oh. Much obliged.” 

“All a gentleman could do,” said Mr. Gene. 
He was drunk. “Warn you what’s sleepin’ under 
your roof.” 

“Thanks,” said Harris “It’s almost morning. 
Look.” 

“Poor Mike can’t sleep,” said Mr. Gene. ‘He 



140 A Cwlain of Green 

scrapes somethin’ when he breathes. Did the 
other fella poop out?” 

“Still unconscious. No change,” said Hams. He 
took the bunch of keys which the proprietor was 
handing him. 

“You keep ’em,” said Mr. Gene. 

In the next moment Harris saw his hand trem- 
ble and he took hold of it. 

“A murderer!” whispered Mr. Gene. All his 
freckles stood out. “Here he came . . . with not 
a word to say ...” 

“Not a murderer yet,” said Harris, starting to 
grin. 

When he passed 202 and heard no sound, he 
remembered what old Sobby had said, standing 
handcidlcd in front of the hospital, with nobody 
listening to him. “I was jist tired of him always 
uppin’ an’ makin’ a noise about ever’thing.” 

In his room, Harris lay down on the bed with- 
out undressing or turning out the light. He was 
too tired to sleep. Half blinded by the unshaded 
bulb he stared at the bare plaster walls and the 
equally white surface of the mirror above the 
empty dresser. Presently he got up and turned 
on the ceiling fan, to create some motion and 
sound in the room. It was a defective fan which 
clicked with each revolution, on and on. He lay 
perfectly still beneath it, with his clothes on, un- 



The Hitch-Hikers 141 

consciously breathing in a rhythm related to the 
beat of the fan. 

He shut his eyes suddenly. When they were 
closed, in the red darkness he felt all patience 
leave him. It was like the beginning of desire. He 
remembered the girl dropping money into her 
heart-shaped pocket, and remembered a disturb- 
ing possessiveness, which meant nothing, Ruth 
leaning on her hands. He knew he would not be 
held by any of it. It was for relief, almost, that 
his thoughts turned to pity, to wonder about the 
two tramps, their conflict, the sudden brutality 
when his back was turned. How would it turn 
out? It was in this suspense that it was more ac- 
ceptable to him to feel the helplessness of his life. 

He could forgive nothing in this evening. But 
it was too like other evenings, this town was too 
like other towns, for him to move out of this lying 
still clothed on the bed, even into comfort or 
despair. Even the rain— there was often rain, there 
was often a party, and there had been other vio- 
lence not of his doing— other fights, not quite so 
pointless, but fights in his car; fights, unheralded 
confessions, sudden love-making— none of any of 
this his, not his to keep, but belonging to the 
people of these towns he passed through, coming 
out of their rooted pasts and their mock rambles, 
coming out of their time. He himself had no 
time. He tvas free; helpless. He wished he knew 



142 A Cm tain of Green 

how the guitar player was, if he was still un- 
conscious, if he felt pain. 

He sat up on the bed and titen got up and 
walked to the window. 

“Tom!” said a voice outside in the dark. 

Automatically he answered and listened. It was 
a girl. He could not see her, but she must have 
been standing on the little plot of grass that ran 
around the side of the hotel. Wet feet, pneumonia, 
he thought. And he was so tired he thought of a 
girl from the wrong town. 

He went down and unlocked the door. She ran 
in as far as the middle of the lobby as though 
from impetus. It was Carol, from the party. 

“You’re wet,” he said. He touched her. 

“Always raining.” She looked up at him, step- 
ping back. “How are you?” 

“O.K., fine,” he said. 

“I was wondering,” she said nervously. “I knew 
the light would be you. I hope I didn’t wake up 
anybody.” Was old Sobby asleep? he wondered. 

“Would you like a drink? Or do you want to 
go to the All-Nite and get a Coca-Cola?” he said. 

“It’s open,” .she said, making a gesture with 
her hand. “The All-Nit e’s open— I just passed it.” 

They went out into the mist, and she put his 
coat on with silent protest, in the dark street not 
drunken but womanly. 

“You didn’t remember me at the party,” she 



The Hitch-Hikers 145 

said, and did not look up when he made his ex- 
clamation. “They say you never forget anybody, 
so I found out they were wrong about that any- 
way.” 

“They’re often wrong,” he said, and then hur- 
riedly, “Who are you?” 

“We used to stay at the Manning Hotel on 
the Coast every summer— I wasn’t grown. Carol 
Thames. Just dances and all, but you had just 
started to travel then, it was on your trips, and 
you— you talked at intermission.” 

He laughed shortly, but she added: 

“You talked about yourself.” 

They walked past the tall wet church, and their 
steps echoed. 

“Oh, it wasn’t so long ago— five years,” she said. 
Under a magnolia tree she put her hand out and 
stopped him, looking up at him with her child’s 
face. “But when I saw you again tonight I wanted 
to know how you were getting along.” 

He said nothing, and she went on. 

“You used to play the piano.” 

They passed under a street light, and she 
glanced up as if to look for the little tic in hi? 
cheek. 

“Out on the big porch where they danced,” 
she said, walking on. “Paper lanterns ...” 

“I’d forgotten that, is one thing sure,” he said. 



144 (hniaiti of Gieen 

“Maybe you’ve got the wrong man. I’ve got 
eousins galore who all play the piano.” 

“You’d put your hands down on the keyboard 
like you’d say, ‘Now ibis is how it really is!’” 
she cried, and turned her head away. ‘‘1 guess 1 
was crazy about you, though.” 

“Crazy about me then?” He struck a match and 
held a cigarette between his teeth. 

‘’No— yes, and now too!” she cried sharply, as 
if driven to deny him. 

They came to the little depot where a restless 
switch engine was hissing, and crossed the black 
street. The past and present joined like this, he 
thought, it never happened often to me, and it 
probably won’t happen again. He took her arm 
and led her through the dirty screen door of the 
.\11-Nite. 

He waited at the counter while she sat down by 
the wall table and wiped her face all over with 
her handkerchief. He carried tlie black coffees 
over to the table himself, smiling at her from a 
little distance. They sat under a calendar with 
some picture of giant trees being cut down. 

They said little. A fly bothered her. When the 
coffee was all gone he put her into the old Cadillac 
taxi that always stood in front of the depot. 

Before he shut the taxi door he said, frowning, 
“I appreciate it. . . . You’re sweet.” 

Now she had torn her handkerchief. She held 



The Hitch-Hikers 


145 

it up and began to cry. “What’s sweet about me?” 
It was the look of bewilderment in her face that 
he would remember. 

“To come out, like this— in the rain— to be 
here. . . .” He shut the door, partly from weari- 
ness. 

She tvas holding her breath. “I hope your 
friend doesn’t die,” she said. “All I hope is your 
friend gets well.” 

But when he woke up the next morning and 
phoned the hospital, the guitar player was dead. 
He had been dying while Harris was sitting in 
the All-Nite. 

“It was a murderer,” said Mr. Gene, pulling 
Mike’s ears. “That was just plain murder. No way 
anybody could call that an affair of honor.” 

The man called Sobby did not oppose an in- 
vitation to confess. He stood erect and turning 
his head about a little, and almost smiled at all 
the men who had come to see him. After one 
look at him Mr. Gene, who had come with Harris, 
went out and slammed the door behind him. 

All the same, Sobby had found little in the 
night, asleep or awake, to say about it. “I done 
it, sure,” he said. “Didn’t ever’body see me, or 
was they blind?” 

They asked him about the man he had killed. 

“Name Sanford,” he said, standing still, with 



146 A Curtain of Green 

his foot out, as if he were trying to recall some- 
thing particular and minute. “But he didn’t have 
nothing and he didn’t have no folks. No more’n 
me. Him and me, we took up together two weeks 
back.’’ He looked up at their faces as if for sup- 
port. “He was uppity, though. He bragged. He 
carried a gittar around.’’ He whimpered. “It was 
his notion to run off with the car.’’ 

Harris, fresh from the barbershop, was stand- 
ing in the filling station where his car was being 
polished. 

A ring of little boys in bright shirt-tails sur- 
rounded him and the car, with some colored boys 
waiting behind them. 

“Could they git all the blood off the seat and 
the steerin’ wheel, Mr. Harris?’’ 

He nodded. They ran away. 

“Mr. Harris,’’ said a little colored boy who 
stayed. “Does you want the box?’’ 

“The what?’’ 

He pointed, to where it lay in the back seat 
with the sample cases. “The po’ kilt man’s gittar. 
Even the policemans didn’t want it.’’ 

“No,” said Harris, and handed it over. 



A MEMORY 


V_yNE SUMMER moming when I 
was a child I lay on the sand after swimming in 
the small lake in the park. The sun beat down— 
it was almost noon. The water shone like steel, 
motionless except for the feathery curl behind a 
distant swimmer. From my position I was looking 
at a rectangle brightly lit, actually glaring at me, 
with sun, sand, water, a little pavilion, a few soli- 
tary people in fixed attitudes, and around it all 
a border of dark rounded oak trees, like the en- 
graved thunderclouds surrounding illustrations 
in the Bible. Ever since I had begun taking paint- 
ing lessons, I had made small frames with my 
fingers, to look out at everything. 

Since this was a weekday morning, the only 
persons who were at liberty to be in the park were 
either children, who had nothing to occupy them, 
or those older people whose lives are obscure, 
irregular, and consciously of no worth to any- 
thing: this I put down as my observation at that 

147 



148 A Curtain of Green 

time. I was at an age when I formed a judgment 
upon every person and every event which came 
under my eye, although I was easdy frightened. 
When a person, or a happening, seemed to me 
nor in keeping with my opinion, or even my hope 
or expectation, I was terrified by a vision of aban- 
donment and wildness which tore my heart with 
a kind of sorrow. My father and mother, who be- 
lieved that I saw nothing in the world which 
was not strictly coaxed into place like a vine 
on our garden trellis to be presented to my eyes, 
would have been badly concerned if they had 
guessed how frequently the weak and inferior 
and strangely turned examples of what was to 
come showed themselves to me. 

I do not know even now what it was that I 
was waiting to see; but in those days I was con- 
vinced that I almost saw it at every turn. To watch 
everything about me I regarded grimly and pos- 
sessively as a need. All through this summer I 
had lain on the sand beside the small lake, with 
my hands squared over my eyes, finger tips touch- 
ing, looking out by this device to see everything: 
which appeared as a kind of projection. It did 
not matter to me what I looked at; from any 
observation I would conclude that a secret of 
life had been nearly revealed to me— for I was 
obsessed with notions about concealment, and 
from the smallest gesture of a stranger I would 



A Memory 149 

wrest what was to me a communication or a pre- 
sentiment. 

This state of exaltation was heightened, or even, 
brought about, by the fact that I was in love then 
for the first time: I had identified love at once. 
The truth is that never since has any passion I 
have felt remained so hopelessly unexpressed 
within me or appeared so grotesquely altered in 
the outward world. It is strange that sometimes, 
even now, I remember unadulteratedly a certain 
morning when I touched my friend’s wrist (as if 
by accident, and he pretended not to notice) as 
we passed on the stairs in school. I must add, and 
this is not so strange, that the child was not ac- 
tually my friend. We had never exchanged a 
word or even a nod of recognition; but it was 
possible during that entire year for me to think 
endlessly on this minute and brief encounter 
which we endured on the stairs, until it would 
swell with a sudden and overwhelming beauty, 
like a rose forced into premature bloom for a 
great occasion. ’ 

My love had somehow made me doubly austere 
in my observations of what went on about me. 
Through some intensity I had come almost into a 
dual life, as observer and dreamer. I felt a neces- 
sity for absolute conformity to my ideas in any 
happening I witnessed. As a result, all day long in 
school I sat perpetually alert, fearing for the un- 



150 A Curtain of Green 

toward to happen. The dreariness and regularity 
of the school day were a protection for me, but 
I remember with exact clarity the day in Latin 
class when the boy I loved (whom I watched con- 
stantly) bent suddenly over and brought his hand- 
kerchief to his face. I saw red— vermilion— blood 
flow over the handkerchief and his square-shaped 
hand; his nose had begun to bleed. I remember 
the very moment: several of the older girls laughed 
at the confusion and distraction; the boy rushed 
from the room; the teacher spoke sharply in warn- 
ing. But this small happening which had closed 
in upon my friend was a tremendous shock to 
me; it was unforeseen, but at the same time 
dreaded; I recognized it, and suddenly I leaned 
heavily on my arm and fainted. Does this explain 
why, ever since that day, I have been unable to 
bear the sight of blood? 

I never knew where this boy lived, or who his 
parents were. This occasioned during the year 
of my love a constant uneasiness in me. It was 
unbearable to think that' his house might be 
slovenly and unpainted, hidden by tall trees, that 
his mother and father might be shabby— dishonest 
—crippled— dead. I speculated endlessly on the 
dangers of his home. Sometimes I imagined that 
his house might catch on fire in the night and 
that he might die. When he would walk into the 
schoolroom the next morning, a look of uncon- 



A Memory 151 

cern and even stupidity on his face would dissi- 
pate my dream; but my fears were increased 
through his unconsciousness of them, for I felt 
a mystery deeper than danger which hung about 
him. I watched everything he did, trying to learn 
and translate and verify. I could reproduce for 
you now the clumsy weave, the exact shade of 
faded blue in his sweater. I remember how he 
used to swing his foot as he sat at his desk— softly, 
barely not touching the floor. Even now it does 
not seem trivial. 

As I lay on the beach that sunny morning, I 
was thinking of my friend and remembering in 
a retarded, dilated, timeless fashion the incident 
of my hand brushing his wrist. It made a very 
long story. But like a needle going in and out 
among my thoughts were the children running on 
the sand, the upthrust oak trees growing over the 
clean pointed roof of the white pavilion, and the 
slowly changing attitudes of the grown-up people 
who had avoided the city and were lying prone 
and laughing on the water’s edge. I still would 
not care to say which was more real— the dream 
I could make blossom at will, or the sight of the 
bathers. I am presenting them, you see, only as 
simultaneous. 

I did not notice how the bathers got there, so 
close to me. Perhaps I actually fell asleep, and 
they came out then. Sprawled close to where I 



152 A Curtain of Green 

was lying, at any rate, appeared a group of loud, 
squirming, ill-assorted people who seemed thrown 
together only by the most confused accident, and 
who seemed driven by foolish intent to insult 
each other, all of which they enjoyed with a 
hilarity which astonished my heart. There were 
a man, two women, two young boys. They were 
brown and roughened, but not foreigners; when 
I was a child such people were called “common.” 
They wore old and faded bathing suits which did 
not hide either the energy or the fatigue of their 
bodies, but showed it exactly. 

The boys must have been brothers, because 
they both had very white straight hair, which 
shone like thistles in the red sunlight. The older 
boy was greatly overgrown— he protruded from 
his costume at every turn. His cheeks were bal- 
looned outward and hid his eyes, but it was easy 
for me to follow his darting, sly glances as he 
ran clumsily around the others, inflicting pinches, 
kicks, and idiotic sounds upon them. The smaller 
boy was thin and defiant; his white bangs tvere 
plastered down where he had thrown himself time 
after time headfirst into the lake when the older 
child chased him to persecute him. 

Lying in leglike confusion together were the 
rest of the group, the man and the two women. 
The man seemed completely given over to the 
heat and glare of the sun; his relaxed eyes some- 



A Memory 153 

times squinted with faint amusement over the 
brilliant water and the hot sand. His arms were 
flabby and at rest. He lay turned on his side, now 
and then scooping sand in a loose pile about the 
legs of the older woman. 

She herself stared fixedly at his slow, undeliber- 
ate movements, and held her body perfectly still. 
She was unnaturally white and fatly aware, in a 
bathing suit which had no relation to the shape 
of her body. Fat hung upon her upper arms like 
an arrested earthslide on a hill. With the first 
motion she might make, I was afraid that she 
would slide down upon herself into a terrifying 
heap. Her breasts hung heavy and widening like 
pears into her bathing suit. Her legs lay prone one 
on the other like shadowed bulwarks, uneven and 
deserted, upon which, from the man's hand, the 
sand piled higher like the teasing threat of 
oblivion. A slow, repetitious sound I had been 
hearing for a long time unconsciously, I identified 
as a continuous laugh which came through the 
motionless open pouched mouth of the woman. 

^he younger girl, who was lying at the man’s 
feet, was curled tensely upon herself. She wore a 
bright green bathing suit like a bottle from which 
she might, I felt, burst in a rage of churning 
smoke. I could feel the genie-like rage in her nar- 
rowed figure as she seemed both to crawl and to 
lie still, watching the man heap the sand in his 



154 ^ Curtain of Green 

careless way about the larger legs of the older 
woman. The two little boys were running in 
wobbly ellipses about the others, pinching them 
indiscriminately and pitching sand into the man’s 
roughened hair as though they were not afraid of 
him. The woman continued to laugh, almost as 
she would hum an annoying song. I saw that they 
were all resigned to each other’s daring and ugli- 
ness. 

There had been no words spoken among these 
people, but I began to comprehend a progression, 
a circle of answers, which they were flinging 
toward one another in their own way, in the con- 
fusion of vulgarity and hatred which twined 
among them all like a wreath of steam rising from 
the wet sand. I saw the man lift his hand filled 
with crumbling sand, shaking it as the woman 
laughed, and pour it down inside her bathing 
suit between her bulbous descending breasts. 
There it hung, brown and shapeless, making them 
all laugh. Even the angry girl laughed, with an 
insistent hilarity which flung her to her feet and 
tossed her about the beach, her stiff, cramped legs 
jumping and tottering. The little boys pointed 
and howled. The man smiled, the way panting 
dogs seem to be smiling, and gazed about care- 
lessly at them all and out over the water. He even 
looked at me, and included me. Looking back, 
stunned, I wished that they all were dead. 



A Memory 155 

But at that moment the girl in the green bath- 
ing suit suddenly whirled all the way around. 
She reached rigid arms toward the screaming chil- 
drezr and joined them in a senseless chase. The 
small boy dashed headfirst into the water, and the 
larger boy churned his overgrown body through 
the blue air onto a little bench, which I had not 
even known was there! Jeeringly he called to the 
others, who laughed as he jumped, heavy and 
ridiculous, over the back o£ the bench and tum- 
bled exaggeratedly in the sand belo^v. The fat 
woman leaned over the man to smirk, and the 
child pointed at her, screaming. The girl in green 
then came running toward the bench as though 
she would destroy it, and with a fierceness which 
took my breath away, she dragged herself through 
the air and jumped over the bench. But no one 
seemed to notice, except the smaller boy, who flew 
out of the water to dig his fingers into her side, 
in mixed congratulation and derision; she pushed 
him angrily down into the sand. 

I closed my eyes upon them and their struggles 
but I could see them still, large and almost metal- 
lic, with painted smiles, in the sun. I lay there 
with my eyes pressed shut, listening to their moans 
and their frantic squeals. It seemed to me that I 
could hear also the thud and the fat impact of ail 
their ugly bodies upon one another. I tried to 
withdraw to my most inner dream, that of touch- 



156 A Curtain of Green 

ing the wrist of the boy I loved on the stair; I 
felt the shudder of my wish shaking the darkness 
like leaves where I had closed my eyes; I felt the 
heavy weight of sweetness which always accom- 
panied this memory; but the memory itself did 
not come to me. 

I lay there, opening and closing my eyes. The 
brilliance and then the blackness were like some 
alternate experiences of night and day. The sweet- 
ness of my love seemed to bring the dark and to 
swing me gently in its suspended wind; I sank 
into familiarity; but the story of my love, the 
long narrative of the incident on the stairs, had 
vanished. I did not know, any longer, the mean- 
ing of my happiness; it held me unexplained. 

Once when I looked up, the fat woman was 
standing opposite the smiling man. She bent over 
and in a condescending way pulled down the 
front of her bathing suit, turning it outward, so 
that the lumps of mashed and folded sand came 
emptying out. I felt a peak of horror, as though 
her breasts themselves had turned to sand, as 
though they were of no importance at all and she 
did not care. 

When finally I emerged again from the protec- 
tion of my dream, the undefined austerity of my 
love, I opened my eyes onto the blur of an empty 
beach. The group of strangers had gone. Still I 
lay there, feeling victimized by the sight of the 



A Memory igy 

unfinished bulwark where they had piled and 
shaped the wet sand around their bodies, which 
changed the appearance of the beach like the 
ravages of a storm. I looked away, and for the 
object which met my eye, the small worn white 
pavilion, I felt pity suddenly overtake me, and I 
burst into tears. 

That was my last morning on the beach. I re- 
member continuing to lie there, squaring my 
vision with my hands, trying to think ahead to 
the time of my return to school in winter. I could 
imagine the boy I loved walking into a classroom, 
where I would watch him with this hour on the 
beach accompanying my recovered dream and 
added to my love. I could even foresee the way 
he would stare back, speechless and innocent, a 
medium-sized boy with blond hair, his uncon- 
scious eyes looking beyond me and out the win- 
dow, solitary and unprotected. 



CLYTIE 


CvT WAS late afternoon, with 
heavy silver clouds which looked bigger and wider 
than cotton fields, and presently it began to rain. 
Big round drops fell, still in the sunlight, on the 
hot tin sheds, and stained the white false fronts of 
the row of stores in the little town of Farr’s Gin. 
A hen and her string of yellow chickens ran in 
great alarm across the road, the dust turned river- 
brown, and the birds flew down into it immedi- 
ately, sitting out little pockets in which to take 
baths. The bird dogs got up from the doorways 
of the stores, shook themselves down to the tail, 
and went to lie inside. The few people standing 
with long shadows on the level road moved over 
into the post office. A little boy kicked his bare 
heels into the sides of his mule, which proceeded 
slowly through the town toward the country. 

After everyone else had gone under cover. Miss 
Clytie Farr stood still in the road, peering ahead 

158 



Clytie 159 

in her near-sighted way, and as wet as the little 
birds. 

She usually came out of the old big house about 
this time in the afternoon, and hurried through 
the town. It used to be that she ran about on some 
pretext or other, and for a while she made soft- 
voiced explanations that nobody could hear, and 
after that she began to charge up bills, which 
the postmistress declared would never be paid any 
more than anyone else’s, even if the Farrs were 
too good to associate with other people. But now 
Clytie came for nothing. She came every day, and 
no one spoke to her any more: she would be in 
such a hurry, and couldn’t see who it was. And 
every Saturday they expected her to be run over, 
the way she darted out into the road with all the 
horses and trucks. 

It might be simply that Miss Clytie’s wits were 
all leaving her, said the ladies standing in the door 
to feel the cool, the way her sister’s had left her; 
and she would just wait there to be told to go 
home. She would have to wring out everything 
she had on— the waist and the jumper skirt, and 
the long black stockings. On her head was one 
of the straw hats from the furnishing store, with 
an old black satin ribbon pinned to it to make 
it a better hat, and tied under the chin. Now, 
under the force of the rain, while the ladies 
watched, the hat slowly began to sag down on 



i6o A Curtain of Green 

each side until it looked even more absurd and 
done for, like an old bonnet on a horse. And 
indeed it was with the patience almost of a beast 
that Miss Clytie stood there in the rain and stuck 
her long empty arms out a little from her sides, 
as if she were waiting for something to come 
along the road and drive her to shelter. 

In a little while there was a clap of thunder. 

“Miss Clytie! Go in out of the rain. Miss 
Clytie!” someone called. 

The old maid did not look around, but clenched 
her hands and drew them up under her armpits, 
and sticking out her elbows like hen wings, she 
ran out of the street, her poor hat creaking and 
beating about her ears. 

“Well, there goes Miss Clytie,” the ladies said, 
and one of them had a premonition about her. 

Through the rushing water in the sunken path 
under the four wet black cedars, which smelled 
bitter as smoke, she ran to the house. 

“Where the devil have you been?” called the 
older sister, Octavia, from an upper window. 

Clytie looked up in time to see the curtain 
fall back. 

She went inside, into the hall, and waited, 
shivering. It was very dark and bare. The only 
light was falling on the white sheet which covered 
the solitary piece of furniture, an organ. The red 



Clytie i6i 

curtains over the parlor door, held back by ivory 
hands, were still as tree trunks in the airless house. 
Every window was closed, and every shade was 
down, though behind them the rain could still be 
heard. 

Clytie took a match and advanced to the stair 
post, where the bronze cast of Hermes was holding 
up a gas fixture; and at once above this, lighted 
up, but quite still, like one of the immovable 
relics of the house, Octavia stood waiting on the 
stairs. 

She stood solidly before the violet-and-lemon- 
colored glass of the window on the landing, and 
her wrinkled, unresting fingers took hold of the 
diamond cornucopia she always wore in the bosom 
of her long black dress. It was an unwithered 
grand gesture of hers, fondling the cornucopia. 

“It is not enough that we are waiting here— 
hungry,” Octavia was saying, while Clytie waited 
below. “But you must sneak away and not answer 
when I call you. Go off and wander about the 
streets. Common— common— !” 

“Never mind. Sister,” Clytie managed to say. 

“But you always return.” 

“Of course. . . .” 

“Gerald is awake now, and so is Papa,” said 
Octavia, in the same vindicative voice— a loud 
voice, for she was usually calling. 

Clytie went to the kitchen and lighted the 



1 62 A Curtain of Green 

kindling in the wood stove. As if she were freez- 
ing cold in June, she stood before its open door, 
and soon a look of interest and pleasure lighted 
her face, which had in the last years grown 
weather-beaten in spite of the straw hat. Now 
some dream was resumed. In the street she had 
been thinking about the face of a child she had 
just seen. The child, playing with another of the 
same age, chasing it with a toy pistol, had looked 
at her with such an open, serene, trusting expres- 
sion as she passed by! With this small, peaceful 
face still in her mind, rosy like these flames, like 
an inspiration which drives all other thoughts 
away, Clytie had forgotten herself and had been 
obliged to stand where she was in the middle of 
the road. But the rain had come down, and some- 
one had shouted at her, and she had not been 
able to reach the end of her meditations. 

It had been a long time now, since, Clytie had 
first begun to watch faces, and to think about 
them. 

Anyone could have told you that there were 
not more than 150 people in Farr’s Gin, count- 
ing Negroes. Yet the number of faces seemed to 
Clytie almost infinite. She knew now to look 
slowly and carefully at a face; she was convinced 
that it was impossible to see it all at once- The 
first thing she discovered about a face was always 
that she had never seen it before. When she began 



Clytie 163 

to look at people’s actual countenances there was 
no more familiarity in the world for her. The most 
profound, the most moving sight in the whole 
world must be a face. Was it possible to compre- 
hend the eyes and the mouths of other people, 
which concealed she knew not what, and secretly 
asked for still another unknown thing? The mys- 
terious smile of the old man who sold peanuts 
by the church gate returned to her; his face 
seemed for a moment to rest upon the iron door 
of the stove, set into the lion’s mane. Other peo- 
ple said Mr. Tom Bate’s Boy, as he called him- 
self, stared away with a face as clean-blank as a 
watermelon seed, but to Clytie, who observed 
grains of sand in his eyes and in his old yellow 
lashes, he might have come out of a desert, like 
an Egyptian. 

But while she was thinking of Mr. Tom Bate’s 
Boy, there was a terrible gust of wind which struck 
her back, and she turned around. The long green 
window shade billowed and plunged. The kitchen 
window was wide open— she had done it herself. 
She closed it gently. Octavia, who never came all 
the way downstairs for any reason, would never 
have forgiven her for an open window, if she 
knew. Rain and sun signified ruin, in Octavia’s 
mind. Going over the tvhole house, Clytie made 
sure that everything was safe. It was not that ruin 
in itself could distress Octavia. Ruin or encroach- 



ib4 A Curtain of Green 

ment, even upon priceless treasures and even in 
poverty, held no terror for her; it was simply 
some form of prying from without, and this she 
would not forgive. All of that was to be seen in 
her face. 

Clytie cooked the three meals on the stove, for 
they all ate different things, and set the three 
trays. She had to carry them in proper order up 
the stairs. She frowned in concentration, for it was 
hard to keep all the dishes straight, to make them 
come out right in the end, as Old Lethy could 
have done. They had had to give up the cook long 
ago when their father suffered the first stroke. 
Their father had been fond of Old Lethy, she 
had been his nurse in childhood, and she had 
come back out of the country to see him when 
she heard he was dying. Old Lethy had come and 
knocked at the back door. And as usual, at the first 
disturbance, front or back, Octavia had peered 
down from behind the curtain and cried, “Go 
away! Go away! What the devil have you come 
here for?” And although Old Lethy and their 
father had both pleaded that they might be al- 
lowed to see each other, Octavia had shouted as 
she always did, and sent the intruder away. Clytie 
had stood as usual, speechless in the kitchen, un- 
til finally she had repeated after her sister, “Lethy, 
go away.” But their father had not died. He was, 
instead, paralyzed, blind, and able only to call out 



Clytie 165, 

in unintelligible sounds and to swallow liquids. 
Lethy still would come to the back door now and 
then, but they never let her in, and the old man 
no longer heard or knew enough to beg to see her. 
There was only one caller admitted to his room. 
Once a week the barber came by appointment to 
shave him. On this occasion not a word was spoken 
by anyone. 

Clytie went up to her father’s room first and 
set the tray down on a little marble table they 
kept by his bed. 

“I want to feed Papa,” said Octavia, taking the 
bowl from her hands. 

“You fed him last time,” said Clytie. 

Relinquishing the bowl, she looked down at 
the pointed face on the pillow. Tomorrow was 
the barber’s day, and the sharp black points, at 
their longest, stuck out like needles all over the 
wasted cheeks. The old man’s eyes were half 
closed. It was impossible to know what he felt. 
He looked as though he were really far away, 
neglected, free. . . . Octavia began to feed him. 

Without taking her eyes from her father’s face, 
Clytie suddenly began to speak in rapid, bitter 
words to her sister, the wildest words that came to 
her head. But soon she began to cry and gasp, like 
a small child who has been pushed by the big boys 
into the water. 

“That is enough,” said Octavia. 



i66 A Curtain of Green 

But Clytie could not take her eyes from her 
father’s unshaven face and his still-open mouth. 

“And I’ll feed him tomoirow if I want to,” said 
Octavia. She stood up. The thick hair, growing 
back after an illness and dyed almost purple, fell 
over her forehead. Beginning at her throat, the 
long accordion pleats which fell the length of 
her gown opened and closed over her breasts as 
she breathed. “Have you forgotten Gerald?” she 
said. “And I am hungry too.” 

Clytie went back to the kitchen and brought 
her sister’s supper. 

Then she brought her brother’s. 

Gerald’s room was dark, and she had to push 
through the usual barricade. The smell of whisky 
was everywhere; it even flew up in the striking ol 
the match when she lighted the jet. 

“It’s night,” said Clytie presently. 

Gerald lay on his bed looking at her. In the 
bad light he resembled his father. 

“There’s some more coffee down in the 
kitchen,” said Clytie. 

“Would you bring it to me?” Gerald asked. He 
stared at her in an exhausted, serious way. 

She stooped and held him up. He drank the 
coffee while she bent over him with her eyes 
closed, resting. 

Presently he pushed her away and fell back on 



Clytie 167 

the bed, and began to describe how nice it was 
when he had a little house of his own down the 
street, all new, with all conveniences, gas stove, 
electric lights, when he was married to Rosemary. 
Rosemary— she had given up a job in the next 
town, just to marry him. How had it happened 
that she had left him so soon? It meant nothing 
that he had threatened time and again to shoot 
her, it was nothing at all that he had pointed the 
gun against her breast. She had not understood. 
It was only that he had relished his contentment. 
He had only wanted to play with her. In a way he 
had wanted to show her that he loved her above 
life and death. 

“Above life and death,” he repeated, closing 
his eyes. 

Clytie did not make an answer, as Octavia al- 
ways did during these scenes, which were bound 
to end in Gerald’s tears. 

Outside the closed window a mockingbird be- 
gan to sing. Clytie held back the curtain and 
pressed her ear against the glass. The rain had 
stopped. The bird’s song sounded in liquid drops 
down through the pitch-black trees and the night. 

“Go to hell,” Gerald said. His head was under 
the pillow. 

She took up the tray, and left Gerald with his 
face hidden. It was not necessary for her to look 



i68 A Curtain of Green 

at any of their faces. It was their faces which came 
between. 

Hurrying, she went down to the kitchen and 
began to eat her own supper. 

Their faces came between her face and another. 
It was their faces which had come pushing in 
between, long ago, to hide some face that had 
looked back at her. And now it was hard to re- 
member the way it looked, or the time when she 
had seen it first. It must have been when she was 
young. Yes, in a sort of arbor, hadn’t she laughed, 
leaned forward . . . and that vision of a face— 
which was a little like all the other faces, the trust- 
ing child’s, the innocent old traveler’s, even the 
greedy barber’s and Lethy’s and the wandering 
peddlers’ who one by one knocked and went un- 
answered at the door— and yet different, yet far 
more— this face had been very close to hers, almost 
familiar, almost accessible. And then the face of 
Octavia was thrust between, and at other times 
the apoplectic face of her father, the face of her 
brother Gerald and the face of her brother Henry 
with the bullet hole through the forehead. . . . 
It was purely for a resemblance to a vision that 
she examined the secret, mysterious, unrepeated 
faces she met in the street of Farr’s Gin. 

But there was always an interruption. If any- 
one spoke to her, she fled. If she saw she was going 
to meet someone on the street, she had been 



Clytie 169 

known to dart behind a bush and hold a small 
branch in front of her face until the person had 
gone by. When anyone called her by name, she 
turned first red, then white, and looked somehow, 
as one of the ladies in the store remarked, disap- 
pointed. 

She was becoming more frightened all the time, 
too. People could tell because she never dressed 
up any more. For years, every once in a while, she 
would come out in what was called an "outfit,” all 
in hunter’s green, a hat that came down around 
her face like a bucket, a green silk dress, even 
green shoes with pointed toes. She would wear 
the outfit all one day, if it was a pretty day, and 
then next morning she would be back in the faded 
jumper with her old hat tied under the chin, as 
if the outfit had been a dream. It had been a long 
time now since Clytie had dressed up so that you 
could see her coming. 

Once in a while when a neighbor, trying to be 
kind or only being curious, would ask her opinion 
about anything— such as a pattern of crochet— 
she would not run away; but, giving a thin 
trapped smile, she would say in a childish voice, 
"It’s nice.” But, the ladies always added, nothing 
that came anywhere close to the Farrs’ house was 
nice for long. 

"It’s nice,” said Clytie when the old lady next 
door showed her the new rosebush she had 
planted, all in bloom. 



lyo A Curtain of Green 

But before an hour was gone, she came run- 
ning out of her house screaming, “My sister Oc- 
tavia says you take that rosebush up! My sister 
Octavia says you take that rosebush up and move 
it away from our fence! If you don’t I’ll kill you! 
You take it away.” 

And on the other side of the Farrs lived a 
family with a little boy who was always playing 
in his yard. Octavia’s cat would go under the 
fence, and he would take it and hold it in his 
arms. He had a song he sang to the Farrs’ cat. 
Clytie would come running straight out of the 
house, flaming with her message from Octavia. 
“Don’t you do that! Don’t you do that!” she would 
cry in anguish. “If you do that again. I’ll have to 
kill you!” 

And she would run back to the vegetable patch 
and begin to curse. 

The cursing was new, and she cursed softly, 
like a singer going over a song for the first time. 
But it was something she could not stop. Words 
which at first horrified Clytie poured in a full, 
light stream from her throat, which soon, never- 
theless, felt strangely relaxed and rested. She 
cursed all alone in the peace of the vegetable gar- 
den. Everybody said, in something like depreca- 
tion, that she was only imitating her older sister, 
who used to go out to that same garden and curse 
in that same way, years ago, but in a remarkably 



Clytie 171 

loud, commanding voice that could be heard in 
the post office. 

Sometimes in the middle of her words Clytie 
glanced up to where Octavia, at her window, 
looked down at her. When she let the curtain 
drop at last, Clytie would be left there speechless. 

Finally, in a gentleness compounded of fright 
and exhaustion and love, an overwhelming love, 
she would wander through the gate and out 
through the town, gradually beginning to move 
faster, until her long legs gathered a ridiculous, 
rushing speed. No one in town could have kept up 
with Miss Clytie, they said, giving them an even 
start. 

She always ate rapidly, too, all alone in the 
kitchen, as she was eating now. She bit the meat 
savagely from the heavy silver fork and gnawed 
the little chicken bone until it was naked and 
clean. 

Halfway upstairs, she remembered Gerald’s 
second pot of coffee, and went back for it. After 
she had carried the other trays down again and 
washed the dishes, she did not forget to try all the 
doors and windows to make sure that everything 
was locked up absolutely tight. 

The next morning, Clytie bit into smiling lips 
as she cooked breakfast. Far out past the secretly 
opened window a freight train was crossing the 



lyg A Curtain of Green 

bridge in the sunlight. Some Negroes filed down 
the road going fishing, and Mr. Tom Bate’s Boy, 
who was going along, turned and looked at her 
through the window. 

Gerald had appeared dressed and wearing his 
spectacles, and announced that he was going to 
the store today. The old Farr furnishing store did 
little business now, and people hardly missed 
Gerald when he did not come; in fact, they could 
hardly tell when he did because of the big boots 
strung on a wire, which almost hid the cagelike 
office. A little high-school girl could wait on any- 
body who came in. 

Now Gerald entered the dining room. 

“How are you this morning, Clyde?” he asked. 

“Just fine, Gerald, how are you?” 

“I’m going to the store,” he said. 

He sat down stiffly, and she laid a place on the 
table before him. 

From above, Octavia screamed, “Where in the 
devil is my thimble, you stole my thimble, Clytie 
Farr, you carried it away, my little silver thimble!” 

“It’s started,” said Gerald intensely. Clytie saw 
his fine, thin, almost black lips spread in a crooked 
line. “How can a man live in the house with 
women? How can he?” 

He jumped up, and tore his napkin exactly in 
two. He walked out of the dining room without 



Clytie 

eating the first bite of his breakfast. She heard 
him going back upstairs into his room. 

“My thimble!” screamed Octavia. 

She waited one moment. Crouching eagerly, 
rather like a little squirrel, Clytie ate part of her 
breakfast over the stove before going up the stairs. 

At nine Mr. Bobo, the barber, knocked at the 
front door. 

Without waiting, for they never answered the 
knock, he let himself in and advanced like a small 
general down the hall. There was the old organ 
that was never uncovered or played except for 
funerals, and then nobody was invited. He went 
ahead, under the arm of the tiptoed male statue 
and up the dark stairway. There they were, lined 
up at the head of the stairs, and they all looked 
at him with repulsion. Mr. Bobo was convinced 
that they were every one mad. Gerald, even, had 
already been drinking, at nine o’clock in the 
morning. 

Mr. Bobo was short and had never been any- 
thing but proud of it, until he had started com- 
ing to this house once a week. But he did not 
enjoy looking up from below at the soft, long 
throats, the cold, repelled, high-reliefed faces of 
those Farrs. He could only imagine what one of 
those sisters would do to him if he made one move. 
(As if he would!) As soon as he arrived upstairs. 



174 ^ Curtain of Green 

they all went off and left him. He pushed out 
his chin and stood with his round legs wide apart, 
just looking around. The upstairs hall was abso- 
lutely bare. There was not even a chair to sit 
down in. 

“Either they sell away their furniture in the 
dead of night,” said Mr. Bobo to the people of 
Farr’s Gin, “or else they’re just too plumb mean 
to use it.” 

Mr. Bobo stood and waited to be summoned, 
and wished he had never started coming to this 
house to shave old Mr. Farr. But he had been so 
surprised to get a letter in the mail. The letter 
was on such old, yellowed paper that at first he 
thought it must have been written a thousand 
years ago and never delivered. It was signed “Oc- 
tavia Farr,” and began without even calling him 
“Dear Mr. Bobo.” What it said was: “Come to 
this residence at nine o’clock each Friday morning 
until further notice, where you will shave Mr. 
James Farr.” 

He thought he would go one time. And each 
time after that, he thought he would never go 
back— especially when he never knew when they 
would pay him anything. Of course, it was some- 
thing to be the only person in Farr’s Gin allowed 
inside the house (except for the undertaker, who 
had gone there when young Henry shot himself, 
but had never to that day spoken of it). It was 



Clytie 175 

not easy to shave a man as bad off as Mr. Farr, 
either— not anything like as easy as to shave a 
corpse or even a fighting-drunk field hand. Sup- 
pose you were like this, Mr. Bobo would say: you 
couldn’t move your face; you couldn’t hold up 
your chin, or tighten your jaw, or even bat your 
eyes when the razor came close. The trouble with 
Mr. Farr was his face made no resistance to the 
razor. His face didn’t hold. 

“I’ll never go back,’’ Mr. Bobo always ended 
to his customers. “Not even if they paid me. I’ve 
seen enough.’’ 

Yet here he was again, waiting before the sick- 
room door. 

“This is the last time,’’ he said. “By God!’’ 

And he wondered why the old man did not die. 

Just then Miss Clytie came out of the room. 
There she came in her funny, sideways walk, and 
the closer she got to him the more slowly she 
moved. 

“Now?” asked Mr. Bobo nervously. 

Clytie looked at his small, doubtful face. What 
fear raced through his little green eyes! His piti- 
ful, greedy, small face— how very mournful it was, 
like a stray kitten’s. What was it that this greedy 
little thing was so desperately needing? 

Clytie came up to the barber and stopped. In- 
stead of telling him that he might go in and shave 



176 A Curtain of Green 

her father, she put out her hand and with breath- 
taking gentleness touched the side of his face. 

For an instant afterward, she stood looking at 
him inquiringly, and he stood like a statue, like 
the statue of Hermes. 

Then both of them uttered a despairing cry. 
Mr. Bobo turned and fled, waving his razor 
around in a circle, down the stairs and out the 
front door; and Clytie, pale as a ghost, stumbled 
against the railing. The terrible scent of bay rum, 
of hair tonic, the horrible moist scratch of an in- 
visible beard, the dense, popping green eyes— 
what had she got hold of with her hand! She could 
hardly bear it— the thought of that face. 

From the closed door to the sickroom came 
Octavia’s shouting voice. 

“Clytie! Clytie! You haven’t brought Papa the 
rain water! Where in the devil is the rain water 
to shave Papa?” 

Clytie moved obediently down the stairs. 

Her brother Gerald threw open the door of 
his room and called after her, “What now? This 
is a madhouse! Somebody was running past my 
room, I heard it. Where do you keep your men? 
Do you have to bring them home?” He slammed 
the door again, and she heard the barricade 
going up. 

Clytie went through the lower hall and out the 
back door. She stood beside the old rain barrel 



Clytie 

and suddenly £ek that this object, now, was her 
friend, just in time, and her arms almost circled 
it with impatient gratitude. The rain barrel was 
full. It bore a dark, heavy, penetrating fragrance, 
like ice and flowers and the dew of night. 

Clytie swayed a little and looked into the 
slightly moving water. She thought she saw a 
face there. 

Of course. It was the face she had been look- 
ing for, and from which she had been separated. 
As if to give a sign, the index finger of a hand 
lifted to touch the dark cheek. 

Clytie leaned closer, as she had leaned down to 
touch the face of the barber. 

It was a wavering, inscrutable face. The brows 
were drawn together as if in pain. The eyes were 
large, intent, almost avid, the nose ugly and dis- 
colored as if from weeping, the mouth old and 
closed from any speech. On either side of the head 
dark hair hung down in a disreputable and wild 
fashion. Everything about the face frightened and 
shocked her with its signs of waiting, of suffering. 

For the second time that morning, Clytie re- 
coiled, and as she did so, the other recoiled in the 
same way. 

Too late, she recognized the face. She stood 
there completely sick at heart, as though the poor, 
half-remembered vision had finally betrayed her. 



178 A Curtain of Green 

“Clytie! Clytie! The water! The water!” came 
Octavia’s monumental voice. 

Clytie did the only thing she could think of to 
do. She bent her angular body further, and thrust 
her head into the barrel, under the water, through 
its glittering surface into the kind, featureless 
depth, and held it there. 

When Old Lethy found her, she had fallen for- 
ward into the barrel, with her poor ladylike black- 
stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a 
pair of tongs. 



OLD MR. MARBLEHALL 


V_y'LD MR. MARBLEHALL never did 
anything, never got married until he was sixty. 
You can see him out taking a walk. Watch and 
you’ll see how preciously old people come to think 
they are made— the way they walk, like conspira- 
tors, bent over a little, filled with protection. They 
stand long on the corners but more impatiently 
than anyone, as if they expect traffic to take notice 
of them, rear up the horses and throw on the 
brakes, so they can go where they want to go. 
That’s Mr. Marblehall. He has short white bangs, 
and a bit of snapdragon in his lapel. He walks 
with a big polished stick, a present. That’s what 
people think of him. Everybody says to his face, 
“So well preserved!’’ Behind his back they say 
cheerfully, “One foot in the grave.’’ He has on 
his thick, beautiful, glowing coat-tweed, but he 
looks as gratified as an animal in its own tingling 
fur. You see, even in summer he wears it, be- 
cause he is cold all the time. He looks quaintly 

179 



i8o A Curtain of Green 

secretive and prepared for anything, out walking 
very luxuriously on Catherine Street. 

His wife, back at home in the parlor standing 
up to think, is a large, elongated old woman with 
electric-looking hair and curly lips. She has spent 
her life trying to escape from the parlor-like jaws 
of self-consciousness. Her late marriage has set in 
upon her nerves like a retriever nosing and puffing 
through old dead leaves out in the woods. When 
she walks around the room she looks remote and 
nebulous, out on the fringe of habitation, and 
rather as if she must have been cruelly trained 
—otherwise she couldn’t do actual, immediate 
things, like answering the telephone or putting 
on a hat. But she has gone further than you’d 
think: into club work. Surrounded by other more 
suitably exclaiming women, she belongs to the 
Daughters of the American Revolution and the 
United Daughters of the Confederacy, attending 
teas. Her long, disquieted figure towering in the 
candlelight of other women’s houses looks like 
something accidental. Any occasion, and she 
dresses her hair like a unicorn horn. She even 
sings, and is requested to sing. She even writes 
some of the songs she sings (“O Trees in the Eve- 
ning”). She has a voice that dizzies other ladies 
like an organ note, and amuses men like a halloo 
down the well. It’s full of a hollow wind and echo, 
winding out through the wavery hope of her 



Old Mr. Marblehall i8i 

mouth. Do people know o£ her perpetual amaze- 
ment? Back in safety she wonders, her untidy head 
trembles in the domestic dark. She remembers 
how everyone in Natchez will suddenly grow quiet 
around her. Old Mrs. Marblehall, Mr. Marble- 
hall’s wife: she even goes out in the rain, which 
Southern women despise above everything, in big 
neat biscuit-colored galoshes, for which she “or- 
dered off.” She is only looking around — servile, 
undelighted, sleepy, expensive, tortured Mrs. 
Marblehall, pinning her mind with a pin to her 
husband’s diet. She wants to tempt him, she tells 
him. What would he like best, that he can haver 
There is Mr. Marblehall’s ancestral home. It’s 
not so wonderfully large— it has only four columns 
—but you always look toward it, the way you al- 
ways glance into tunnels and see nothing. The 
river is after it now, and the little back garden 
has assuredly crumbled away, but the box maze is 
there on the edge like a trap, to confound the 
Mississippi River. Deep in the red wall waits the 
front door— it weighs such a lot, it is perfectly 
solid, all one piece, black mahogany. . . . And 
you see— one of them is always going in it. There 
is a knocker shaped like a gasping fish on the door. 
You have every reason in the world to imagine 
the inside is dark, with old things about. There’s 
many a big, deathly-looking tapestry, wrinkling 
.and thin, many a sofa shaped like an S. Brocades 



i83 a Cm tain of Green 

as tall as the wicked queens in Italian tales stand 
gathered before the windows. Everything is draped 
and hooded and shaded, of course, unaffectionate 
but close. Such rosy lamps! The only sound would 
be a breath against the prisms, a stirring of the 
chandelier. It’s like old eyelids, the house with 
one of its shutters, in careful working order, slowly 
opening outward. Then the little son softly comes 
and stares out like a kitten, with button nose and 
pointed ears and little fuzz of silky hair running 
along the top of his head. 

The son is the worst of all. Mr. and Mrs. 
Marblehall had a child! When both of them were 
terribly old, they had this little, amazing, fascinat- 
ing son. You can see how people are taken aback, 
how they jerk and throw up their hands every 
time they so much as think about it. At least, Mr. 
Marblehall sees them. He thinks Natchez people 
do nothing themselves, and really, most of them 
have done or could do the same thing. This sor^ 
is six years old now. Close up, he has a monkey 
look, a very penetrating look. He has very sparse 
Japanese hair, tiny little pearly teeth, long little 
wilted fingers. Every day he is slowly and ex- 
pensively dressed and taken to the Catholic school. 
He looks quietly and maliciously absurd, out 
walking with old Mr. Marblehall or old Mrs. 
Marblehall, placing his small booted foot on a 
little green worm, while they stop and wait on 



Old Mr. Marblehall 183 

him. Everybody passing by thinks that he looks 
quite as if he thinks his parents had him just to 
show they could. You see, it becomes complicated, 
full of vindictiveness. 

But now, as Mr. Marblehall walks as briskly 
as possible toward the river where there is sun, 
you have to merge him back into his proper blur, 
into the little party-giving town he lives in. Why 
look twice at him? There has been an old Mr. 
Marblehall in Natchez ever since the first one ar- 
rived back in 1818— with a theatrical presenta- 
tion of Otway’s Venice, ending with A Laughable 
Combat between Two Blind Fiddlers— an actor! 
Mr. Marblehall isn’t so important. His name is 
on the list, he is forgiven, but nobody gives a hoot 
about any old Mr. Marblehall. He could die, for 
all they care; some people even say, “Oh, is he 
still alive?’’ Mr. Marblehall walks and walks, and 
now and then he is driven in his ancient fringed 
carriage with the candle burners like empty eyes 
in front. And yes, he is supposed to travel for his 
health. But why consider his absence? There isn’t 
,any other place besides Natchez, and even if there 
were, it would hardly be likely to change Mr. 
Marblehall if it were brought up against him. 
Big fingers could pick him up off the Esplanade 
.and take him through the air, his old kgs still 
measuredly walking in a dangle, and set him down 
where he could continue that same old Natchez 



184 A Curtain of Green 

stroll of his in the East or the West or Kingdom 
Come. What difference could anything make now 
about old Mr. Marblehall— so late? A week or two 
would go by in Natchez and then there would be 
Mr. Marblehall, walking down Catherine Street 
again, still exactly in the same degree alive and 
old. 

People naturally get bored. They say, “Well, 
he waited till he was sixty years old to marry, 
and what did he want to marry for?” as though 
what he did were the excuse for their boredom 
and their lack of concern. Even the thought of 
his having a stroke right in front of one of the 
Pilgrimage houses during Pilgrimage Week makes 
them only sigh, as if to say it’s nobody’s fault but 
his own if he wants to be so insultingly and pre- 
cariously well-preserved. He ought to have a little 
black boy to follow around after him. Oh, his 
precious old health, which never had reason to 
be so inspiring! Mr. Marblehall has a formal, re- 
proachful look as he stands on the corners arrang- 
ing himself to go out into the traffic to cross the 
streets. It’s as if he’s thinking of shaking his stick 
and saying, “Well, look! I’ve done it, don’t you 
see?” But really, nobody pays much attention to 
his look. He is just like other people to them. He 
could have easily danced with a troupe of angels 
in Paradise every night, and they wouldn’t have 



Old Mr. Marblehall 185 

guessed. Nobody is likely to find out that he is 
leading a double life. 

The funny thing is he just recently began to 
lead this double life. He waited until he tvas 
sixty years old. Isn’t he crazy? Before that, he’d 
never done anything. He didn’t know what to do. 
Everything was for all the world like his first 
party. He stood about, and looked in his father’s 
books, and long ago he went to France, bu*- he 
didn’t like it. 

Drive out any of these streets in and under the 
hills and you find yourself lost. You see those 
scores of little galleried houses nearly alike. See 
the yellowing China trees at the eaves, the round 
flower beds in the front yards, like bites in the 
grass, listen to the screen doors whining, the ice 
wagons dragging by, the twittering noises of chil- 
dren. Nobody ever looks to see who is living in 
a house like that. These people come out them- 
selves and sprinkle the hose over the street at this 
time of day to settle the dust, and after they sit 
on the porch, they go back into the house, and 
you hear the radio for the next two hours. It 
seems to mourn and cry for them. They go to 
bed early. 

Well, old Mr. Marblehall can easily be seen 
standing beside a row of zinnias growing down 
the walk in front of that little house, bending 
over, easy, easy, so as not to strain anything, to 



i86 A Curtain of Green 

stare at the flowers. Of course he planted them! 
They are covered with brown— each petal is a 
little heart-shaped pocket of dust. They don’t have 
any smell, you know. It’s twilight, all amplified 
with locusts screaming; nobody could see any- 
thing. Just what Mr. Marblehall is bending over 
the zinnias for is a mystery, any way you look at it. 
But there he is, quite visible, alive and old, lead- 
ing his double life. 

There’s his other wife, standing on the night- 
stained porch by a potted fern, screaming things 
to a neighbor. This wife is really worse than the 
other one. She is more solid, fatter, shorter, and 
while not so ugly, funnier looking. She looks like 
funny furniture— an unornamented stair post in 
one of these little houses, with her small monoto- 
nous round stupid head— or sometimes like a 
woodcut of a Bavarian witch, forefinger pointing, 
with scratches in the air all around her. But she’s 
so static she scarcely moves, from her thick shoul- 
ders down past her cylindered brown dress to her 
short, stubby house slippers. She stands still and 
screams to the neighbors. 

This wife thinks Mr. Marblehall’s name is Mr. 
Bird. She says, “I declare I told Mr. Bird to go to 
bed, and look at him! I don’t understand him!” 
All her devotion is combustible and goes up in 
despair. This wife tells everything she knows. 
Later, after she tells the neighbors, she will tell 



Old Mr. Marblehall 187 

Mr. Marblehall. Cymbal-breasted, she fills the 
house with wifely complaints. She calls, “After I 
get Mr. Bird to bed, what does he do then? He 
lies there stretched out with his clothes on and 
don’t have one word to say. Know what he does?” 

And she goes on, while her husband bends over 
the zinnias, to tell what Mr. Marblehall (or Mr. 
Bird) does in bed. She does tell the truth. He 
reads Terror Tales and Astonishing Stories. She 
can’t see anything to them: they scare her to death. 
These stories are about horrible and fantastic 
things happening to nude women and scientists. 
In one of them, when the characters open bureau 
drawers, they find a woman’s leg with a stocking 
and garter on. Mrs. Bird had to shut the maga- 
zine. “The glutinous shadows,” these stories say, 
“the red-eyed, muttering old crone,” “the moon- 
light on her thigh,” “an ancient cult of sun wor- 
shipers,” “an altar suspiciously stained . . Mr. 
Marblehall doesn’t feel as terrified as all that, but 
he reads on and on. He is killing time. It is rich- 
ness without taste, like some holiday food. The 
clock gets a fruity bursting tick, to get through 
midnight— then leisurely, leisurely on. When time 
is passing it’s like a bug in his ear. And then Mr. 
Bird— he doesn’t even want a shade on the light, 
this wife moans respectably. He reads under a 
bulb. She can tell you how he goes straight 
through a stack of magazines. “He might just as 



i88 A Curtain of Green 

well not have a family/’ she always ends, unjustly, 
and rolls back into the house as if she had been 
on a little wheel all this time. 

But the worst of them all is the other little 
boy. Another little boy just like the first one. He 
wanders around the bungalow full of tiny little 
schemes and jokes. He has lost his front tooth, 
and in this way he looks slightly diflEerent from 
Mr. Marblehall’s other little boy— more shocking. 
Otherwise, you couldn’t tell them apart if you 
wanted to. They both have that look of cunning 
little jugglers, violently small under some spot- 
light beam, preoccupied and silent, amusing them- 
selves. Both of the children will go into sudden 
fits and tantrums that frighten their mothers and 
Mr. Marblehall to death. Then they can get any- 
thing they want. But this little boy, the one who’s 
lost the tooth, is the smarter. For a long time he 
supposed that his mother was totally solid, down 
to her thick separated ankles. But when she stands 
there on the porch screaming to the neighbors, 
she reminds him of those flares that charm him 
so, that they leave burning in the street at night— 
the dark solid ball, then, tongue-like, the wicked, 
yellow, continuous, enslaving blaze on the stem. 
He knows what his father thinks. 

Perhaps one day, while Mr. Marblehall is stand- 
ing there gently bent over the zinnias, this little 
boy is going to write on a fence, “Papa leads a 



Old Mr. Marhlehall 189 

double life.” He finds out things you wouldn’t 
find out. He is a monkey. 

You see, one night he is going to follow Mr. 
Marblehall (or Mr. Bird) out of the house. Mr. 
Marblehall has said as usual that he is leaving 
for one of his health trips. He is one of those cor- 
rect old gentlemen who are still going to the 
wells and drinking the waters— exactly like his 
father, the late old Mr. Marblehall. But why 
does he leave on foot? This will occur to the little 
boy. 

So he will follow his father. He will follow him 
all the way across town. He will see the shining 
river come winding around. He will see the house 
where Mr. Marblehall turns in at the wrought- 
iron gate. He will see a big speechless woman 
come out and lead him in by the heavy door. He 
will not miss those rosy lamps beyond the many- 
folded draperies at the windows. He will run 
around the fountains and around the Japonica 
trees, past the stone figure of the pigtailed courtier 
mounted on the goat, down to the back of the 
house. From there he can look far up at the 
strange upstairs rooms. In one window the other 
wife will be standing like a giant, in a long-sleeved 
gathered nightgown, combing her electric hair and 
breaking it off each time in the comb. From the 
next window the other little boy will look out 
secretly into the night, and see him— or not see 



igo A Curtain of Green 

him. That would be an interesting thing, a mo- 
ment of strange telepathies. (Mr. Marblehall can 
imagine it.) Then in the corner room there will 
suddenly be turned on the bright, naked light. 
Aha! Father! 

Mr. Marblehall’s little boy will easily climb a 
tree there and peep through the window. There, 
under a stark shadeless bulb, on a great four- 
poster with carved griffins, will be Mr. Marble- 
hall, reading Terror Tales, stretched out and 
motionless. 

Then everything will come out. 

At first, nobody will believe it. 

Or maybe the policeman will say, “Stop! How 
dare you!” 

Maybe, better than that, Mr. Marblehall him- 
self will confess his duplicity— how he has led ttvo 
totally different lives, with completely different 
families, two sons instead of one. What an aston- 
ishing, unbelievable, electrifying confession that 
would be, and how his two wives would topple 
over, how his sons would cringe! To say nothing 
of most men aged sixty-six. So thinks self-consol- 
ing Mr. Marblehall. 

You will think, what if nothing ever happens? 
What if there is no climax, even to this amazing 
life? Suppose old Mr. Marblehall simply remains 
alive, getting older by the minute, shuttling, still 
secretly, back and forth? 



Old Mr. Marblehall 191 

Nobody cares. Not an inhabitant of Natchez, 
Mississippi, cares if he is deceived by old Mr. 
Marblehall. Neither does anyone care that Mr. 
Marblehall has finally caught on, he thinks, to 
what people are supposed to do. This is it: they 
endure something inwardly— for a time secretly; 
they establish a past, a memory; thus they store up 
life. He has done this; most remarkably, he has 
even multiplied his life by deception; and plung- 
ing deeper and deeper he speculates upon some 
glorious finish, a great explosion of revelations 
. . . the future. 

But he still has to kill time, and get through 
the clocking nights. Otherwise he dreams that he 
is a great blazing butterfly stitching up a net; 
which doesn’t make sense. 

Old Mr. Marblehall! He may have years ahead 
yet in which to wake up bolt upright in the bed 
under the naked bulb, his heart thumping, his 
old eyes watering and wild, imagining that if 
people knew about his double life, they’d die. 



FLOWERS FOR MARJORIE 


C/ lE WAS one of the modest, the 
shy, the sandy haired— one of those who would 
always have prefeired waiting to one side. . . . 
A row of feet rested beside his own where he 
looked down. Beyond was the inscribed base of the 
drinking fountain which stemmed with a troubled 
sound up into the glare of the day. The feet were 
in Vs, all still. Then down at the end of the bench, 
one softly began to pat. It made an innuendo at 
a dainty pink chewing-gum wrapper blowing by. 

He would not look up. When the chewing-gum 
wrapper blew over and tilted at his foot, he spat 
at some sensing of invitation and kicked it away. 
He held a toothpick in his mouth. 

Someone spoke. “You goin’ to join the demon- 
stration at two o’clock?” 

Howard lifted his gaze no further than the 
baggy corduroy knees in front of his own. 

“Demonstration . . . ?” The tasteless tooth- 
pick stuck to his lips; what he said was indistinct. 

192 



Flowers For Marjorie 193 

But he snapped the toothpick finally with his 
teeth and puffed it out of his mouth. It landed in 
the grass like a little tent. He was surprised at 
the sight of it, and at his neatness and proficiency 
in blowing it out. And that little thing started up 
all the pigeons. His eyes ached when they whirled 
all at once, as though a big spoon stirred them 
in the sunshine. He closed his eyes upon their 
flying opal-changing wings. 

And then, with his eyes shut, he had to think 
about Marjorie. Always now like something he 
had put off, the thought of her was like a wave 
that hit him when he was tired, rising impossibly 
out of stagnancy and deprecation while he sat in 
the park, towering over his head, pounding, fall- 
ing, going back and leaving nothing behind it. 

He stood up, looked at the position of the sun, 
and slowly started back to her. 

He was panting from the climb of four flights, 
and his hand groped for the knob in the hall 
shadows. As soon as he opened the door he 
shrugged and threw his hat on the bed, so 
Marjorie would not ask him how he came out 
looking about the job at Columbus Circle; for 
today, he had not gone back to inquire. 

Nothing was said, and he sat for a while on the 
couch, his hands spread on his knees. Then, be- 
fore he would meet her eye, he looked at the chair 



194 A Curtain of Green 

in the room, which neither one would use, and 
there lay Marjorie’s coat with a flower stuck in 
the buttonhole. He gave a silent despairing laugh 
that turned into a cough. 

Marjorie said, “I walked around the block— 
and look what I found.” She too was looking only 
at the pansy, full of pride. 

It was bright yellow. She only found it, Howard 
thought, but he winced inwardly, as though she 
had displayed some power of the spirit. He simply 
had to sit and stare at her, his hands drawn back 
into his pockets, feeling, a match. 

Marjorie sat on the little trunk by the window, 
her round arm on the sill, her soft cut hair now 
and then blowing and streaming like ribbon-ends 
over her curling hand where she held her head 
up. It was hard to remember, in this city of dark, 
nervous, loud-spoken women, that in Victory, 
Mississippi, all girls were like Marjorie— and that 
Marjorie was in turn like his home. . . . Or was 
she? There were times when Howard would feel 
lost in the one little room. Marjorie often seemed 
remote now, or it might have been the excess of 
life in her rounding body that made her never 
notice any more the single and lonely life around 
her, the very pressing life around her. He could 
only look at her. . . . Her breath whistled a little 
between her parted lips as she stirred in some 
momentary discomfort. 



Flowers For Marjorie 195 

Howard lowered his eyes and once again he 
saw the pansy. There it shone, a wide-open yellow 
flower with dark red veins and edges. Against 
the sky-blue of Marjorie’s old coat it began in 
Howard’s anxious sight to lose its identity of 
flower-size and assume the gradual and large 
curves of a mountain on the horizon of a desert, 
the veins becoming crevasses, the delicate edges 
the giant worn lips of a sleeping crater. His heart 
jumped to his mouth. . . . 

He snatched the pansy from Marjorie’s coat 
and tore its petals off and scattered them on the 
floor and jumped on them! 

Marjorie rvatched him in silence, and slowly he 
realized that he had not acted at all, that he had 
only had a terrible vision. The pansy still blazed 
on the coat, just as the pigeons had still flown in 
the park when he was hungry. He sank back onto 
the couch, trembling with the desire and the pity 
that had overwhelmed him, and said harshly, 
“How long before your time comes?” 

“Oh, Howard.” 

“Oh, Howard,”— that was Marjorie. The soft- 
ness, the reproach— how was he to stop it, ever? 

“What did you say?” he asked her. 

“Oh, Howard, can’t you keep track of the time? 
Always asking me . . .” She took a breath and 
said, “In three more months— the end of August.” 



196 A Curtain of Green 

“This is May,” he told her. . . . He almost 
warned her. “This is May.” 

“May, June, July, August.” She rattled the 
time off. 

“You know for sure— you’re certain, it will hap- 
pen when you say?” He gazed at her. 

“Why, of course, Howard, those things always 
happen when they’re supposed to. Nothing can 
stop me from having the baby, that’s sure.” Tears 
came slowly into her eyes. 

“Don’t cry, Marjorie!” he shouted at her. 
“Don’t cry, don’t cry!” 

“Even if you don’t want it,” she said. 

He beat his fist down on the old dark red cloth 
that covered the couch. He felt emotion climbing 
hand over hand up his body, with its strange and 
perfect agility. Helplessly he shut his eyes. 

‘I expect you can find work before then, 
Howard,” she said. 

He stood up in wonder: let it be the way she 
says. He looked searchingly around the room, 
pressed by tenderness, and softly pulled the pansy 
from the coat. 

Holding it out he crossed to her and dropped 
soberly onto the floor beside her. His eyes were 
large. He gave her the flower. 

She whispered to him. “We haven’t been to- 
gether in so long.” She laid her calm warm hand 
on his head, covering over the part in his hair. 



Flowers For Marjorie 197 

holding him to her side, while he drew deep 
breaths of the cloverlike smell of her tightening 
skin and her swollen thighs. 

Why, this is not possible! he was thinking. The 
ticks of the cheap alarm clock grew louder and 
louder as he buried his face against her, feeling 
new desperation every moment in the time- 
marked softness and the pulse of her sheltering 
body. 

But she was talking. 

“If they would only give you some paving work 
for the three months, we could scrape something 
out of that to pay a nurse, maybe, for a little 
while afterwards, after the baby comes—” 

He jumped to his feet, his muscles as shocked 
by her words as if they had hurled a pick at the 
pavement in Columbus Circle at that moment. 
His sharp words overlaid her murmuring voice. 

“Work?” he said sternly, backing away from 
her, speaking loudly from the middle of the room, 
almost as if he copied his pose and his voice some- 
how from the agitators in the park. “When did I 
ever work? A year ago ... six months . . . back 
in Mississippi . . . I’ve forgotten! Time isn’t as 
easy to count up as you think! I wouldn’t know 
what to do now if they did give me work. I’ve for- 
gotten! It’s all past now. . . . And I don’t be- 
lieve it any more— they won’t give me work now 
—they never will—” 



igS A Curtain of Green 

He stopped, and for a moment a look shone 
in his face, as if he had caught sight of a mirage. 
Perhaps he could imagine ahead of him some regu- 
lar and steady division of the day and night, with 
breakfast appearing in the morning. Then he 
laughed gently, and moved even further back un- 
til he stood against the wall, as far as possible 
away from Marjorie, as though she were faithless 
and strange, allied to the other forces. 

“Why, Howard, you don’t even hope you'll find 
work any more,’’ she whispered. 

“Just because you’re going to have a baby, just 
because that’s a thing that’s bound to happen, just 
because you can’t go around forever with a baby 
inside your belly, and it will really happen that 
the baby is born— that doesn’t mean everything 
else is going to happen and change!’’ He shouted 
across at her desperately, leaning against the wall. 
“That doesn’t mean that I will find work! It 
doesn’t mean we aren’t starving to death.’’ In 
some gesture of his despair he had brought his 
little leather purse from his pocket, and was swing- 
ing it violently back and forth. “You may not 
know it, but you’re the only thing left in the world 
that hasn’t stopped!’’ 

The purse, like a little pendulum, slowed down 
in his hand. He stared at her intently, and then 
his working mouth drooped, and he stood there 
holding the purse as still as possible in his palm«. 



Flowers For Marjorie igg 

But Marjorie sat as undismayed as anyone could 
ever be, there on the trunk, looking with her 
head to one side. Her fullness seemed never to 
have touched his body. Away at his distance, 
backed against the wall, he regarded her world 
of sureness and fruitfulness and comfort, grown 
forever apart, safe and hopeful in pregnancy, as 
if he thought it strange that this world, too, should 
not suffer. 

“Have you had anything to eat?” she was ask- 
ing him. 

He was astonished at her; he hated her, then. 
Inquiring out of her safety into his hunger and 
weakness! He flung the purse violently to the 
floor, where it struck softly like the body of a 
shot bird. It was empty. 

Howard walked unsteadily about and came to 
the stove. He picked up a small clean bent sauce- 
pan, and put it down again. They had taken it 
with them wherever they had moved, from room 
to room. His hand went to the objects on the 
shelf as if he were blind. He got hold of the 
butcher knife. Holding it gently, he turned toward 
Marjorie. 

“Howard, what are you going to do?” she mur- 
mured in a patient, lullaby-like voice, as she had 
asked him so many times. 

They were now both far away, remote from 
each other, detached. Like a flash of lightning he 



200 A Qurtain of Green 

changed his hold on the knife and thrust it under 
her breast. 

The blood ran down the edge of the handle and 
dripped regularly into her open hand which she 
held in her lap. How strange! he thought wonder- 
ingly. She still leaned back on her other arm, but 
she must have borne down too heavily upon it, for 
before long her head bowed slowly over, and her 
forehead touched the window sill. Her hair be- 
gan to blow from the back of her head and after 
a few minutes it was all turned the other way. 
Her arm that had rested on the window sill in 
a raised position was just as it was before. Her 
fingers were relaxed, as if she had just let some- 
thing fall. There were little white cloudy mark- 
ings on her nails. It was perfect balance, Howard 
thought, staring at her arm. That was why Mar- 
jorie’s arm did not fall. When he finally looked 
down there was blood everywhere; her lap was 
like a bowl. 

Yes, of course, he thought; for it had all been 
impossible. He went to wash his hands. The clock 
ticked dreadfully, so he threw it out the window. 
Only after a long time did he hear it hit the 
courtyard below. 

His head throbbing in sudden pain, he stooped 
and picked up his purse. He went out, after clos- 
ing the door behind him gently. 



Flowers For Marjorie 201 

There in the city the sun slanted onto the 
streets. It lay upon a thin gray cat watching in 
front of a barber’s pole; as Howard passed, she 
licked herself ovemeatly, staring after him. He 
set his hat on straight and walked through a crowd 
of children who surged about a jumping rope, 
chanting and jumping around him with their lips 
hanging apart. He crossed a street and a messenger 
boy banged into him with the wheel of his bicycle, 
but it never hurt at all. 

He walked up Sixth Avenue under the shade 
of the L, and kept setting his hat on straight. The 
little spurts of wind tried to take it off and blow 
it away. How far he would have had to chase it! 
. , . He reached a crowd of people who were 
watching a machine behind a window; it made 
doughnuts very slowly. He went to the next door, 
where he saw another window full of colored 
prints of the Virgin Mary and nearly all kinds 
of birds and animals, and down below these a 
shelf of little gray pasteboard boxes in which were 
miniature toilets and night jars to be used in play- 
ing jokes, and in the middle box a bulb attached 
to a long tube, with a penciled sign, “Palpitator 
—the Imitation Heart. Show her you Love her.” 
An organ grinder immediately removed his hat 
and played “Valencia.” 

He went on and in a doorway watched how the 
auctioneer leaned out so intimately and waved a 



202 A Curtain of Green 

pair of gold candlesticks at some men who puffed 
smoke straight up against the brims of their hats. 
He passed another place, with the same pictures 
of the Virgin Mary pinned with straight pins to 
the door facing, in case they had not been seen 
the first time. On a dusty table near his hand was 
a glass-ball paperweight. He reached out with 
shy joy and touched it, it was so small and round. 
There was a little scene inside made of bits of 
colored stuff. That was a bright land under the 
glass; he would like to be there. It made him 
smile: it was like everything made small and 
illuminated and flowering, not too big now. He 
turned the ball upside down with a sort of instinct, 
and in shocked submission and pity saw the land- 
scape deluged in a small fury of snow. He stood 
for a moment fascinated, and then, suddenly 
aware of his great size, he put the paperweight 
back where he had found it, and stood shaking 
in the door. A man passing by dropped a dime 
into his open hand. 

Then he found himself in the tunnel of a sub- 
way. All along the tile wall was written, “God 
sees me, God sees me, God sees me, God sees me” 
—four times where he walked by. He read the signs, 
“Entrance” and “Exit Only,” and where some- 
one had printed “Nuts!” under both words. He 
looked at himself in a chewing-gum-machine mir- 



Flowers For Marjorie 203 

ror and straightened his hat before entering the 
train. 

In the car he looked above the heads of the 
people at the pictures on the advertisements, and 
saw many couples embracing and smiling. A beg- 
gar came through with a cane and sang “Let Me 
Call You Sweetheart” like a blind man, and he 
too was given a dime. As Howard left the car a 
guard told him to watch his step. He clutched his 
hat. The wind blew underground, too, whistling 
down the tracks after the trains. He went up the 
stairs between two old warm Jewish women. 

Up above, he went into a bar and had a drink 
of whisky, and though he could not pay for that, 
he had a nickel left over from the subway ride. 
In the back he heard a slot machine being played. 
He moved over and stood for a while between 
two friendly men and then put in the nickel. The 
many nickels that poured spurting and clanging 
out of the hole sickened him; they fell all over 
his legs, and he backed up against the dusty red 
curtain. His hat slid off onto the floor. They all 
rushed to pick it up, and some of them gave him 
handfuls of nickels to hold and bought him drinks 
with the rest. One of them said, “Fella, you ought 
not to let all hell loose that way.” It was a Southern 
man. Howard agreed that they should all have 
drinks around and that his fortune belonged to 
them all. 



204 A Curtain of Green 

But after he had walked around outside awhile 
he still had nowhere in his mind to go. He de- 
cided to try the W.P.A. office and Miss Ferguson. 
Miss Ferguson knew him. There was an old habit 
he used to have of going up to see her. 

He went into the front office. He could see Miss 
Ferguson through the door, typing the same as 
ever. 

“Oh, Miss Ferguson!’’ he called softly, leaning 
forward in all his confidence. He reached up, 
ready to remove his hat, but she went on typing. 

“Oh, Miss Ferguson!” 

A woman who did not know him at all came 
into the room. 

“Did you receive a card to call?” she asked. 

“Miss Ferguson,” he repeated, peering around 
her red arm to keep his eye on the typewriter. 

“Miss Ferguson is busy,” said the red-armed 
woman. 

If he could only tell Miss Ferguson everything, 
everything in his life! Howard was thinking. Then 
it would come clear, and Miss Ferguson would 
write a note on a little card and hand it to him, 
tell him exactly where he could go and what he 
could do. 

When the red-armed woman walked out of the 
office, Howard tried to win Miss Ferguson over. 
She could be very sympathetic. 



Flowers For Marjorie 205 

“Somebody told me you could type!” he called 
softly, in complimentary tones. 

Miss Ferguson looked up. “Yes, that’s right. I 
can type,” she said, and went on typing. 

“I got something to tell you,” Howard said. 
He smiled at her. 

“Some other time,” replied Miss Ferguson over 
the sound of the keys. “Fm busy now. You’d bet- 
ter go home and sleep it off, h’m?” 

Howard dropped his arm. He waited, and tried 
desperately to think of an answer to that. He was 
gazing into the water cooler, in which minute air 
bubbles swam. But he could think of nothing. 

He lifted his hat with a strange jauntiness which 
may have stood for pride. 

“Good-bye, Miss Ferguson!” 

And he was back on the street. 

He walked further and further. It was late when 
he turned into a large arcade, and when he fol- 
lowed someone through a free turnstile, a woman 
marched up to him and said, “You are the ten mil- 
lionth person to enter Radio City, and you will 
broadcast over a nationwide red-and-blue network 
tonight at six o’clock, Eastern standard time. What 
is your name, address, and phone number? Are 
you married? Accept these roses and the key to 
the city.” 

She gave him a great heavy key and an armful 
of bright red roses. He tried to give them back to 



2oG a Curtain of Green 

her at first, but she had not waited a moment. A 
ring of men with hawklike faces aimed cameras 
at him and all took his picture, to the flashing 
of lights. 

“What is your occupation?” 

“Are you married?” 

Almost in his face a large woman with feathery 
furs and a small brown wire over one tooth was 
listening, and others were waiting behind her. 

He watched for an opening, and when they 
were not looking he broke through and ran. 

He ran down Sixth Avenue as fast as he could, 
ablaze with horror, the roses nodding like heads 
in his arm, the key prodding his side. With his 
free hand he held determinedly to his hat. Door- 
ways and intersections blurred past. All shining 
within was a restaurant beside him, but now it was 
too late to be hungry. He wanted only to get 
home. He could not see easily, but traffic seemed 
to stop softly when he ran thundering by; horses 
under the L drew up, and trucks kindly con- 
tracted, as if on a bellows, in front of him. People 
seemed to melt out of his way. He thought that 
maybe he was dead, and now in the end every- 
thing and everybody was afraid of him. 

When he reached his street his breath was gone. 
There were the children playing. They were 
afraid of him and let him by. He ran into the 
courtyard, and stopped still. 



Flowers For Marjorie 207 

There on the walk was the clock. 

It lay on its face, and scattered about it in every 
direction were wheels and springs and bits of glass. 
He bent over and looked at the tiny little pieces. 

At last he climbed the stairs. Somehow he tried 
to unlock the door with the key to the city. But 
the door was not locked at all, and when he got 
inside, he looked over to the window and there 
was Marjorie on the little trunk. Then the roses 
gave out deep waves of fragrance. He stroked 
their soft leaves. Marjorie’s arm had fallen down; 
the balance was gone, and now her hand hung 
out the window as if to catch the wind. 

Then Howard knew for a fact that everything 
had stopped. It was just as he had feared, just as 
he had dreamed. He had had a dream to come 
true. 

He backed away slowly, until he was out of 
the room. Then he ran down the stairs. 

On the street corner the first person he saw was 
a policeman watching pigeons flying. 

Howard went up and stood for a little while 
beside him. 

“Do you know what’s up there in that room?’’ 
he asked finally. He was embarrassed to be asking 
anything of a policeman and to be holding such 
beautiful flowers. 

“What is that?’’ asked the policeman. 

Howard bent his head and buried his eyes, nose. 



2 o 8 a Curtain of Green 

and mouth in the roses. “A dead woman. Marjorie 
is dead.” 

Although the street-intersection sign was di- 
rectly over their heads, and in the air where the 
pigeons flew the chimes of a clock were striking 
six, even the policeman did not seem for a mo- 
ment to be sure of the time and place they were 
in, but had to consult his own watch axid pocket 
effects. 

“Oh!” and “So!” the policeman kept saying, 
while Howard in perplexity turned his head from 
side to side. He looked at him steadily, memoriz- 
ing for all time the nondescript, dusty figure with 
the wide gray eyes and the sandy hair. “And I 
don’t suppose the red drops on your pants are rose 
petals, are they?” 

He grasped the staring man finally by the arm. 

“Don’t be afraid, big boy. I’ll go up with you,” 
he said. 

They turned and walked back side by side. 
When the roses slid from Howard’s fingers and 
fell on their heads all along the sidewalk, the little 
girls ran stealthily up and put them in their hair. 



A CURTAIN OF GREEN 


V^VERY day one summer in Lar- 
kin’s Hill, it rained a little. The rain was a regu- 
lar thing, and would come about two o’clock in 
the afternoon. 

One day, almost as late as five o’clock, the sun 
was still shining. It seemed almost to spin in a 
tiny groove in the polished sky, and down below, 
in the trees along the street and in the rows of 
flower gardens in the town, every leaf reflected 
the sun from a hardness like a mirror surface. 
Nearly all the women sat in the windows of their 
houses, fanning and sighing, waiting for the rain. 

Mrs. Larkin’s garden was a large, densely grown 
plot running downhill behind the small white 
house where she lived alone now, since the death 
of her husband. The sun and the rain that beat 
down so heavily that summer had not kept her 
from working there daily. Now the intense light 
like a tweezers picked out her clumsy, small figure 
in its old pair of men’s overalls rolled up at the 

209 



210 A Curtain of Green 

sleeves and trousers, separated it from the thick 
leaves, and made it look strange and yellow as 
she worked with a hoe— over-vigorous, disreput- 
able, and heedless. 

Within its border of hedge, high like a wall, 
and visible only from the upstairs windows of the 
neighbors, this slanting, tangled garden, more and 
more over-abundant and confusing, must have be- 
come so familiar to Mrs. Larkin that quite pos- 
sibly by now she was unable to conceive of any 
other place. Since the accident in which her hus- 
band was killed, she had never once been seen 
anywhere else. Every morning she might be ob- 
served walking slowly, almost timidly, out of the 
white house, wearing a pair of the untidy over- 
alls, aften with her hair streaming and tangled 
where she had neglected to comb it. She would 
wander about for a little while at first, uncertainly, 
deep among the plants and wet with their dew, 
and yet not quite putting out her hand to touch 
anything. And then a sort of sturdiness would 
possess her— stabilize her; she would stand still 
for a moment, as if a blindfold were being re- 
moved; and then she would kneel in the flowers 
and begin to work. 

She worked without stopping, almost invisibly, 
submerged all day among the thick, irregular, 
sloping beds of plants. The servant would call 
her at dinnertime, and she would obey; but it 



2H 


A Curtain of Green 

was not until it was completely dark that she 
■would truthfully give up her labor and with a 
drooping, submissive walk appear at the house, 
slowly opening the small low door at the back. 
Even the rain would bring only a pause to her. 
She would move to the shelter of the pear tree, 
which in mid-April hung heavily almost to the 
ground in brilliant full leaf, in the center of the 
garden. 

It might seem that the extreme fertility of her 
garden formed at once a preoccupation and a 
challenge to Mrs. Larkin. Only by ceaseless ac- 
tivity could she cope with the rich blackness of 
this soil. Only by cutting, separating, thinning 
and tying back in the clumps of flowers and bushes 
and vines could she have kept them from over- 
reaching their boundaries and multiplying out 
of all reason. The daily summer rains could only 
increase her vigilance and her already excessive 
energy. And yet, Mrs. Larkin rarely cut, sepa- 
rated, tied back. ... To a certain extent, she 
seemed not to seek for order, but to allow an over- 
flowering, as if she consciously ventured forever 
a little farther, a little deeper, into her life in the 
garden. 

She planted every kind of flower that she could 
find or order from a catalogue— planted thickly 
and hastily, without stopping to think, without 
any regard for the ideas that her neighbors might 



212 A Curtain of Green 

elect in their club as to what constituted an ap- 
propriate vista, or an effect of restfulness, or even 
harmony of color. Just to what end Mrs. Larkin 
worked so strenuously in her garden, her neigh- 
bors could not see. She certainly never sent a 
single one of her fine flowers to any of them. They 
might get sick and die, and she would never send 
a flower. And if she thought of beauty at all (they 
regarded her stained overalls, now almost of a 
color with the leaves) , she certainly did not strive 
for it in her garden. It was impossible to enjoy 
looking at such a place. To the neighbors gazing 
down from their upstairs windows it had the ap- 
pearance of a sort of jungle, in which the slight, 
heedless form of its owner daily lost itself. 

At first, after the death of Mr. Larkin— -for 
whose father, after all, the town had been named 
—they had called upon the widow with decent 
frequency. But she had not appreciated it, they 
said to one another. Now, occasionally, they 
looked down from their bedroom windows as 
they brushed studiously at their hair in the morn- 
ing; they found her place in the garden, as they 
might have run their fingers toward a city on a 
map of a foreign country, located her from their 
distance almost in curiosity, and then forgot her. 

Early that morning they had heard whistling 
in the Larkin garden. They had recognized 
Jamey’s tune, and had seen him kneeling in the 



A Curtain of Green 213 

flowers at Mrs. Larkin’s side. He was only the 
colored boy who worked in the neighborhood 
by the day. Even Jamey, it was said, Mrs. Larkin 
would tolerate only now and then. , . . 

Throughout the afternoon she had raised her 
head at intervals to see how fast he was getting 
along in his transplanting. She had to make him 
finish before it began to rain. She was busy with 
the hoe, clearing one of the last patches of un- 
cultivated ground for some new shrubs. She bent 
under the sunlight, chopping in blunt, rapid, tire- 
less strokes. Once she raised her head far back 
to stare at the flashing sky. Her eyes yere dull and 
puckered, as if from long impatience or bewilder- 
ment. Her mouth was a sharp line. People said 
she never spoke. 

But memory tightened about her easily, with- 
out any prelude of warning or even despair. She 
would see promptly, as if a curtain had been 
jerked quite unceremoniously away from a little 
scene, the front porch of the white house, the 
shady street in front, and the blue automobile 
in which her husband approached, driving home 
from work. It was a summer day, a day from the 
summer before. In the freedom of gaily turning 
her head, a motion she was now forced by memory 
to repeat as she hoed the ground, she could see 
again the tree that was going to fall. There had 



i>i4 A Curtain of Green 

been no warning. But there was the enormous 
tree, the fragrant chinaberry tree, suddenly tilt- 
ing, dark and slow like a cloud, leaning down to 
her husband. From her place on the front porch 
she had spoken in a soft voice to him, never so 
intimate as at that moment, “You can’t be hurt.’’ 
But the tree had fallen, had struck the car exactly 
so as to crush him to death. She had waited there 
on the porch for a time afterward, not moving 
at all— in a sort of recollection— as if to reach under 
and bring out from obliteration her protective 
words and to try them once again ... so as to 
change the whole happening. It was accident that 
was incredible, when her love for her husband 
was keeping him safe. 

She continued to hoe the breaking ground, to 
beat down the juicy weeds. Presently she became 
aware that hers was the only motion to continue 
in the whole slackened place. There was no wind 
at all now. The cries of the birds had hushed. The 
sun seemed clamped to the side of the sky. Every- 
thing had stopped once again, the stillness had 
mesmerized the stems of the plants, and all the 
leaves went suddenly into thickness. The shadow 
of the pear tree in the center of the garden lay 
callous on the ground. Across the yard, Jamey 
knelt, motionless. 

“Jamey!” she called angrily. 

But her voice hardly carried in the dense gar- 



A Curtain of Green 215 

den. She felt all at once terrified, as though her 
loneliness had been pointed out by some outside 
force whose finger parted the hedge. She drew her 
hand for an instant to her breast. An obscure 
fluttering there frightened her, as though the force 
babbled to her. The bird that flies within your 
heart could not divide this cloudy air . . . She 
stared without expression at the garden. She was 
clinging to the hoe, and she stared across the 
green leaves toward Jamey. 

A look of docility in the Negro’s back as he 
knelt in the plants began to infuriate her. She 
started to walk toward him, dragging the hoe 
vaguely through the flowers behind her. She 
forced herself to look at him, and noticed him 
closely for the first time— the way he looked like 
a child. As he turned his head a little to one side 
and negligently stirred the dirt with his yellow 
finger, she saw, with a sort of helpless suspicion 
and hunger, a soft, rather deprecating smile on 
his face; he was lost in some impossible dream 
of his own while he was transplanting the little 
shoots. He was not even whistling; even that 
sound was gone. 

She walked nearer to him— he must have been 
deaf!— almost stealthily bearing down upon his 
laxity and his absorption, as if that glimpse of 
the side of his face, that turned-away smile, were 
a teasing, innocent, flickering and beautiful vision 



2i6 a Curtain of Green 

—some mirage to her strained and wandering eyes. 

Yet a feeling of stricture, of a responding hope- 
lessness almost approaching ferocity, grew "tvith 
alarming quickness about her. Wlien she was di- 
rectly behind him she stood quite still for a mo- 
ment, in the queer sheathed manner she had be- 
fore beginning her gardening in the morning. 
Then she raised the hoe above her head; the 
clumsy sleeves both fell back, exposing the thin, 
unsunburned whiteness of her arms, the shocking 
fact of their youth. 

She gripped the handle tightly, tightly, as 
though convinced that the wood of the handle 
could feel, and that all her strength could indent 
its surface with pain. The head of Jamey, bent 
there below her, seemed witless, terrifying, won- 
derful, almost inaccessible to her, and yet in its 
explicit nearness meant surely for destruction, 
with its clustered hot woolly hair, its intricate, 
glistening ears, its small brown branching streams 
of sweat, the bowed head holding so obviously and 
so deadly its ridiculous dream. 

Such a head she could strike off, intentionally, 
so deeply did she know, from the effect of a man’s 
danger and death, its cause in oblivion; and so 
helpless was she, too helpless to defy the workings 
of accident, of life and death, of unaccountability. 
. . . Life and death, she thought, gripping the 
heavy hoe, life and death, which now meant noth- 



A Curtain of Green 217 

ing to her but which she was compelled con- 
tinually to wield with both her hands, ceaselessly 
asking, Was it not possible to compensate? to 
punish? to protest? Pale darkness turned for a 
moment through the sunlight, like a narrow leaf 
blown through the garden in a wind. 

In that moment, the rain came. The first drop 
touched her upraised arm. Small, close sounds and 
coolness touched her. 

Sighing, Mrs. Larkin lowered the hoe to the 
ground and laid it carefully among the growing 
plants. She stood still where she was, close to 
Jamey, and listened to the rain falling. It was so 
gentle. It was so full— the sound of the end of 
waiting. 

In the light from the rain, different from sun- 
light, everything appeared to gleam unreflecting 
from within itself in its quiet arcade of identity. 
The green of the small zinnia shoots was very 
pure, almost burning. One by one, as the rain 
reached them, all the individual little plants shone 
out, and then the branching vines. The pear tree 
gave a soft rushing noise, like the wings of a bird 
alighting. She could sense behind her, as if a 
lamp were lighted in the night, the signal-like 
whiteness of the house. Then Jamey, as if in the 
shock of realizing the rain had come, turned his 
full face toward her, questions and delight in- 
tensifying his smile, gathering up his aroused. 



2i8 a Curtain of Green 

stretching body. He stammered some disconnected 
words, shyly. 

She did not answer Jamey or move at all. She 
would not feel anything now except the rain fall- 
ing. She listened for its scattered soft drops be- 
tween Jamey’s words, its quiet touching of the 
spears of the iris leaves, and a clear sound like a 
bell as it began to fall into a pitcher the cook 
had set on the doorstep. 

Finally, Jamey stood there quietly, as if wait- 
ing for his money, with his hand trying to brush 
his confusion away from before his face. The rain 
fell steadily. A wind of deep wet fragrance beat 
against her. 

Then as if it had swelled and broken over a 
daily levee, tenderness tore and spun through her 
sagging body. 

It has come, she thought senselessly, her head 
lifting and her eyes looking without understand- 
ing at the sky which had begun to move, to fold 
nearer in softening, dissolving clouds. It was al- 
most dark. Soon the loud and gentle night of rain 
would come. It would pound upon the steep roof 
of the white house. Within, she would lie in her 
bed and hear the rain. On and on it would fall, 
beat and fall. The day’s work would be over in 
the garden. She would lie in bed, her arms tired 
at her sides and in motionless peace: against that 
which was inexhaustible, there was no defense. 



A Curtain of Green 219 

Then Mrs. Larkin sank in one motion down 
into the flowers and lay there, fainting and 
streaked with rain. Her face was fully upturned, 
down among the plants, with the hair beaten 
away from her forehead and her open eyes closing 
at once when the rain touched them. Slowly her 
lips began to part. She seemed to move slightly, 
in the sad adjustment of a sleeper. 

Jamey ran jumping and crouching about her, 
drawing in his breath alternately at the flowers 
breaking under his feet and at the shapeless, 
passive figure on the ground. Then he became 
quiet, and stood back at a little distance and ■ 
looked in awe at the unknowing face, white and 
rested under its bombardment. He remembered 
how something had filled him with stillness when 
he felt her standing there behind him looking 
down at him, and he would not have turned 
around at that moment for anything in the world. 
He remembered all the while the oblivious crash 
of the windows next door being shut when the 
rain started. . . . But now, in this unseen place, 
it was he who stood looking at poor Mrs. Larkin. 

He bent down and in a horrified, piteous, be- 
seeching voice he began to call her name until 
she stirred. 

“Miss Lark’! Miss Lark’!’’ 

Then he jumped nimbly to his feet and ran 
out of the garden. 



A VISIT OF CHARITY 


WAS mid-morning— a very 
cold, bright day. Holding a potted plant before 
her, a girl of fourteen jumped off the bus in front 
of the Old Ladies’ Home, on the outskirts of town. 
She wore a red coat, and her straight yellow hair 
was hanging down loose from the pointed white 
cap all the little girls were wearing that year. She 
stopped for a moment beside one of the prickly 
dark shrubs with which the city had beautified 
the Home, and then proceeded slowly toward the 
building, which was of whitewashed brick and re- 
flected the winter sunlight like a block of ice. As 
she walked vaguely up the steps she shifted the 
small pot from hand to hand; then she had to set 
it down and remove her mittens before she could 
open the heavy door. 

“I’m a Campfire Girl. ... I have to pay a visit 
to some old lady,” she told the nurse at the desk. 
This was a woman in a white uniform who looked 
as if she were cold; she had close-cut hair which 


220 



221 


A Visit of Charity 

stood up on the very top of her head exactly like 
a sea wave. Marian, the little girl, did not tell 
her that this visit would give her a minimum of 
only three points in her score. 

“Acquainted with any of our residents?” asked 
the nurse. She lifted one eyebrow and spoke like 
a man. 

“With any old ladies? No— but— that is, any of 
them will do,” Marian stammered. With her free 
hand she pushed her hair behind her ears, as she 
did when it was time to study Science. 

The nurse shrugged and rose. “You have a nice 
multiflora cineraria there,” she remarked as she 
walked ahead down the hall of closed doors to pick 
out an old lady. 

There was loose, bulging linoleum on the floor. 
Marian felt as if she were walking on the waves, 
but the nurse paid no attention to it. There was 
a smell in the hall like the interior of a clock. 
Everything was silent until, behind one of the 
doors, an old lady of some kind cleared her throat 
like a sheep bleating. This decided the nurse. 
Stopping in her tracks, she first extended her arm, 
bent her elbow, and leaned forward from the hips 
—all to examine the watch strapped to her wrist; 
then she gave a loud double-rap on the door. 

“There are two in each room,” the nurse re- 
marked over her shoulder. 

“Two what?” asked Marian without thinking. 



222 A Curtain of Green 

The sound like a sheep’s bleating almost made 
her turn around and run back. 

One old woman was pulling the door open in 
short, gradual jerks, and when she saw the nurse 
a strange smile forced her old face dangerously 
awry. Marian, suddenly propelled by the strong, 
impatient arm of the nurse, saw next the side- 
face of another old woman, even older, who was 
lying flat in bed with a cap on and a counterpane 
drawn up to her chin. 

“Visitor,” said the nurse, and after one more 
shove she was off up the hall. 

Marian stood tongue-tied; both hands held the 
potted plant. The old woman, still with that 
terrible, square smile (which was a smile of wel- 
come) stamped on her bony face, was waiting. 
. . . Perhaps she said something. The old woman 
in bed said nothing at all, and she did not look 
around. 

Suddenly Marian saw a hand, quick as a bird 
claw, reach up in the air and pluck the white cap 
off her head. At the same time, another claw to 
match drew her all the way into the room, and 
the next moment the door closed behind her. 

“My, my, my,” said the old lady at her side. 

Marian stood enclosed by a bed, a washstand 
and a chair; the tiny room had altogether too 
much furniture. Everything smelled wet— even 
the bare floor. She held onto the back of the chair, 



A Visit of Charity 823 

which was wicker and felt soft and damp. Her 
heart beat more and more slowly, her hands got 
colder and colder, and she could not hear whether 
the old women were saying anything or not. She 
could not see them very clearly. How dark it was! 
The window shade was down, and the only door 
was shut. Marian looked at the ceiling. ... It 
was like being caught in a robbers’ cave, just be- 
fore one was murdered. 

“Did you come to be our little girl for a while?” 
the first robber asked. 

Then something was snatched from Marian’s 
hand— the little potted plant. 

“Flowers!” screamed the old woman. She stood 
holding the pot in an undecided way. “Pretty 
flowers,” she added. 

Then the old woman in bed cleared her throat 
and spoke. “They are not pretty,” she said, still 
without looking around, but very distinctly. 

Marian suddenly pitched against the chair and 
sat down in it. 

“Pretty flowers,” the first old woman insisted. 
“Pretty-pretty . . .” 

Marian wished she had the little pot back for 
just a moment— she had forgotten to look at the 
plant herself before giving it away. What did it 
look like? 

“Stinkweeds,” said the other old woman 



2 i 24 ^ Curiam of Green 

sharply. She had a bunchy white forehead and 
red eyes like a sheep. Now she turned them toward 
Marian. The fogginess seemed to rise in her throat 
again, and she bleated, “Who— are— you?” 

To her surprise, Marian could not remember 
her name. “I’m a Campfire Girl,” she said finally. 

“Watch out for the germs,” said the old woman 
like a sheep, not addressing anyone. 

“One came out last month to see us,” said the 
first old woman. 

A sheep or a germ? wondered Marian dreamily, 
holding onto the chair. 

“Did not!” cried the other old woman. 

“Did so! Read to us out of the Bible, and we 
enjoyed it!” screamed the first. 

“Who enjoyed it!” said the woman in bed. Her 
mouth was unexpectedly small and sorrowful, like 
a pet’s. 

“We enjoyed it,” insisted the other. “You en- 
joyed it— I enjoyed it.” 

“We all enjoyed it,” said Marian, without real- 
izing that she had said a word. 

The first old woman had just finished putting 
the potted plant high, high on the top of the ward- 
robe, where it could hardly be seen from below. 
Marian wondered how she had ever succeeded in 
placing it there, how she could ever have reached 
so high. 

“You mustn’t pay any attention to old Addie,” 



A Visit of Charity 225 

she now said to the little girl. “She’s ailing to- 
day.” 

“Will you shut your month?” said the woman 
in bed. “I am not.” 

“You’re a story.” 

“I can’t stay but a minute— really, I can’t,” said 
Marian suddenly. She looked down at the wet 
floor and thought that if she were sick in here they 
would have to let her go. 

With much to-do the first old woman sat down 
in a rocking chair— still another piece of furniture! 
—and began to rock. With the fingers of one hand 
she touched a very dirty cameo pin on her chest. 
“What do you do at school?” she asked. 

“I don’t know . . said Marian. She tried to 
think but she could not. 

“Oh, but the flowers are beautiful,” the old 
woman whispered. She seemed to rock faster and 
faster; Marian did not see how anyone could rock 
so fast. 

“Ugly,” said the woman in bed. 

“If we bring flowers—” Marian began, and then 
fell silent. She had almost said that if Campfire 
Girls brought flowers to the Old Ladies’ Home, 
the visit would count one extra point, and if they 
took a Bible with them on the bus and read it to 
the old ladies, it counted double. But the old 
woman had not listened, anyway; she was rocking 



226 A Curtain of Green 

and watching the other one, who watched back 
from the bed. 

“Poor Addie is ailing. She has to take medicine 
—see?” she said, pointing a horny finger at a row 
of bottles on the table, and rocking so high that 
her black comfort shoes lifted off the floor like a 
little child’s. 

“I am no more sick than you are,” said the 
woman in bed. 

“Oh, yes you are!” 

“I just got more sense than you have, that’s all,” 
said the other old woman, nodding her head. 

“That’s only the contrary way she talks when 
you all come,” said the first old lady with sudden 
intimacy. She stopped the rocker with a neat pat 
of her feet and leaned toward Marian. Her hand 
reached over— it felt like a petunia leaf, clinging 
and just a little sticky. 

“Will you hush! Will you hush!” cried the 
other one. 

Marian leaned back rigidly in her chair. 

“When I was a little girl like you, I went to 
school and all,” said the old woman in the same 
intimate, menacing voice. “Not here— another 
toxvn. . . 

“Hush!” said the sick woman. “You never went 
to school. You never came and you never went. 
You never were anything— only here. You never 
were born! You don’t know anything. Your head 



A Visit of Charity 227 

is empty, your heart and hands and your old 
black purse are all empty, even that little old 
box that you brought with you you brought empty 
—you showed it to me. And yet you talk, talk, talk, 
talk, talk all the time until I think I’m losing my 
mind! Who are you? You’re a stranger— a perfect 
stranger! Don’t you know you’re a stranger? Is it 
possible that they have actually done a thing like 
this to anyone— sent them in a stranger to talk, 
and rock, and tell away her whole long rigmarole? 
Do they seriously suppose that I’ll be able to keep 
it up, day in, day out, night in, night out, living 
in the same room with a terrible old woman- 
forever?” 

Marian saw the old woman’s eyes grow bright 
and turn toward her. This old woman was look- 
ing at her with despair and calculation in her 
face. Her small lips suddenly dropped apart, and 
exposed a half circle of false teeth with tan gums. 

“Come here, I want to tell you something,” 
she whispered. “Come here!” 

Marian was trembling, and her heart nearly 
stopped beating altogether for a moment. 

“Now, now, Addie,” said the first old woman. 
“That’s not polite. Do you know what’s really the 
matter with old Addie today?” She, too, looked at 
Marian; one of her eyelids drooped low. 

“The matter?” the child repeated stupidly. 
“What’s the matter with her?” 



328 A Curtain of Green 

“Why, she’s mad because it’s her birthday!” 
said the first old woman, beginning to rock again 
and giving a little crow as though she had an- 
swered her own riddle. 

“It is not, it is not!” screamed the old woman in 
bed. “It is not my birthday, no one knows when 
that is but myself, and will you please be quiet 
and say nothing more, or I’ll go straight out of 
my mind!” She turned her eyes toward Marian 
again, and presently she said in the soft, foggy 
voice, “When the worst comes to the worst, I 
ring this bell, and the nurse comes.” One of her 
hands was drawn out from under the patched 
counterpane— a thin little hand with enormous 
black freckles. With a finger which would not 
hold still she pointed to a little bell on the table 
among the bottles. 

“How old are you?” Marian breathed. Now she 
could see the old woman in bed very closely and 
plainly, and very abruptly, from all sides, as in 
dreams. She wondered about her— she wondered 
for a moment as though there was nothing else 
in the world to wonder about. It was the first 
time such a thing had happened to Marian. 

“I won’t tell!” 

The old face on the pillow, where Marian was 
bending over it, slowly gathered and collapsed. 
Soft whimpers came out of the small open mouth. 
It was a sheep that she sounded like— a little lamb. 



A Visit of Charity 229 

Marian’s face drew very close, the yellow hair 
hung forward. 

“She’s crying!’’ She turned a bright, burning 
face up to the first old woman. 

“That’s Addie for you,’’ the old woman said 
spitefully. 

Marian jumped up and moved toward the door. 
For the second time, the claw almost touched her 
hair, but it was not quick enough. The little girl 
put her cap on. 

“Well, it was a real visit,’’ said the old woman, 
following Marian through the doorway and all 
the way out into the hall. Then from behind she 
suddenly clutched the child with her sharp little 
fingers. In an affected, high-pitched whine she 
cried, “Oh, little girl, have you a penny to spare 
for a poor old woman that’s not got anything of 
her own? We don’t have a thing in the world— 
not a penny for candy— not a thing! Little girl, 
just a nickel— a penny—” 

Marian pulled violently against the old hands 
for a moment before she was free. Then she ran 
down the hall, without looking behind her and 
without looking at the nurse, who was reading 
Field 6 - Stream at her desk. The nurse, after an- 
other triple motion to consult her wrist watch, 
asked automatically the question put to visitors 
in all institutions: “Won’t you stay and have 
dinner with usT’ 



230 A Curtain of Green 

Marian never replied. She pushed the heavy 
door open into the cold air and ran down the 
steps. 

Under the prickly shrub she stooped and 
quickly, without being seen, retrieved a red apple 
she had hidden there. 

Her yellow hair under the white cap, her scar- 
let coat, her bare knees all flashed in the sunlight 
as she ran to meet the big bus rocketing through 
the street. 

“Wail for me!” she shouted. As though at an 
imperial command, the bus ground to a stop. 

She jumped on and took a big bite out of the 
apple. 



DEATH OF A TRAVEL- 
ING SALESMAN 


CyV. j. BOWMAN, who for four- 
teen years had traveled for a shoe company 
through Mississippi, drove his Ford along a rutted 
dirt path. It was a long day! The time did not 
seem to clear the noon hurdle and settle into soft 
afternoon. The sun, keeping its strength here 
even in winter, stayed at the top of the sky, and 
every time Bowman stuck his head out of the 
dusty car to stare up the road, it seemed to reach 
a long arm down and push against the top of his 
head, right through his hat— like the practical 
joke of an old drummer, long on the road. It 
made him feel all the more angry and helpless. 
He was feverish, and he was not quite sure of 
the way. 

This was his first day back on the road after a 
long siege of influenza. He had had very high 
fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and 


2^1 



232 A Curiam of Green 

pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, 
and he could not think clearly. . . . All after- 
noon, in the midst of his anger, and for no reason, 
he had thought of his dead grandmother. She 
had been a comfortable soul. Once more Bowman 
wished he could fall into the big feather bed that 
had been in her room. . . . Then he forgot her 
again. 

This desolate hill country! And he seemed to 
be going the wrong way— it was as if he were 
going back, far back. There was not a house in 
sight. . . . There was no use wishing he were 
back in bed, though. By paying the hotel doctor 
his bill he had proved his recovery. He had not 
even been sorry when the pretty trained nurse 
said good-bye. He did not like illness, he dis- 
trixsted it, as he distrusted the road without sign- 
posts. It angered him. He had given the nurse a 
really expensive bracelet, just because she was 
packing up her bag and leaving. 

But notv— v/hat if in fourteen years on the road 
he had net'er been ill before and never had an 
accident? His record tvas broken, and he had even 
begun almost to question it. . . . He had grad- 
ually put up at better hotels, in the bigger towns, 
but weren’t they all, eternally, stuffy in summer 
and drafty in tvinter? Women? He could only re- 
member little rooms within little rooms, like a 
nest of Chinese paper boxes, and if he thought of 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 233 

one woman he saw the worn loneliness that the 
furniture of that room seemed built of. And he 
himself — he was a man who always wore rather 
wide-brimmed black hats, and in the wavy hotel 
mirrors had looked something like a bullfighter, 
as he paused for that inevitable instant on the 
landing, walking downstairs to supper. ... He 
leaned out of the car again, and once more the 
sun pushed at his head. 

Bowman had wanted to reach Beulah by dark, 
to go to bed and sleep off his fatigue. As he re- 
membered, Beulah was fifty miles away from the 
last town, on a graveled road. This was only a 
cow trail. How had he ever come to such a place? 
One hand wiped the sweat from his face, and he 
drove on. 

He had made the Beulah trip before. But he 
had never seen this hill or this petering-out path 
before— or that cloud, he thought shyly, looking 
up and then down quickly— any more than he had 
seen this day before. Why did he not admit he 
was simply lost and had been for miles? . . . He 
was not in the habit of asking the way of strangers, 
and these people never knew where the very 
roads they lived on went to; but then he had 
not even been close enough to anyone to call out. 
People standing in the fields now and then, or 
on top of the haystacks, had been too far away, 
looking like leaning sticks or weeds, turning a 



234 ^ Curtain of Green 

little at the solitary rattle of his car across their 
countryside, watching the pale sobered winter 
dust where it chunked out behind like big 
squashes down the road. The stares of these dis- 
tant people had followed him solidly like a wall, 
impenetrable, behind which they turned back af- 
ter he had passed. 

The cloud floated there to one side like the bol- 
ster on his grandmother’s bed. It went over a cabin 
on the edge of a hill, where two bare chinaberry 
trees clutched at the sky. He drove through a heap 
of dead oak leaves, his wheels stirring their weight- 
less sides to make a silvery melancholy whistle as 
the car passed through their bed. No car had been 
along this way ahead of him. Then he saw that 
hie was on the edge of a ravine that fell away, a 
red erosion, and that this was indeed the road’s 
end. 

He pulled the brake. But it did not hold, 
though he put all his strength into it. The car, 
tipped toward the edge, rolled a little. Without 
doubt, it was going over the bank. 

He got out quietly, as though some mischief 
had been done him and he had his dignity to 
remember. He lifted his bag and sample case out, 
set them down, and stood back and watched the 
car roll over the edge. He heard something— not 
the crash he was listening for, but a slow, un- 
uproarious crackle. Rather distastefully he went 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 835 

to look over, and he saw that his car had fallen 
into a tangle of immense grapevines as thick as his 
arm, which caught it and held it, rocked it like 
a grotesque child in a dark cradle, and then, as 
he watched, concerned somehow that he was not 
still inside it, released it gently to the ground. 

He sighed. 

Where am I? he wondered with a shock. Why 
didn’t I do something? All his anger seemed to 
have drifted away from him. There was the house, 
back on the hill. He took a bag in each hand and 
with almost childlike willingness went toward it. 
But his breathing came with difficulty, and he 
had to stop to rest. 

It was a shotgun house, two rooms and an 
open passage between, perched on the hill. The 
whole cabin slanted a little under the heavy 
heaped-up vine that covered the roof, light and 
green, as though forgotten from summer. A 
woman stood in the passage. 

He stopped still. Then all of a sudden his heart 
began to behave strangely. Like a rocket set off, 
it began to leap and expand into uneven patterns 
of beats which showered into his brain, and he 
could not think. But in scattering and falling it 
made no noise. It shot up with great power, almost 
elation, and fell gently, like acrobats into nets. 
It began to pound profoundly, then waited ir- 



2g6 A Curtain of Green 

responsibly, hitting in some sort of inward mock- 
ery first at his ribs, then against his eyes, then 
under his shoulder blades, and against the roof of 
his mouth when he tried to say, “Good afternoon, 
madam.” But he could not hear his heart— it was 
as quiet as ashes falling. This was rather com- 
forting; still, it was shocking to Bowman to feel 
his heart beating at all. 

Stock-still in his confusion, he dropped his bags, 
which seemed to drift in slow bulks gracefully 
through the air and to cushion themselves on the 
gray prostrate grass near the doorstep. 

As for the woman standing there, he saw at once 
that she was old. Since she could not possibly 
hear his heart, he ignored the pounding and now 
looked at her carefully, and yet in his distraction 
dreamily, with his mouth open. 

She had been cleaning the lamp, and held it, 
half blackened, half clear, in front of her. He 
saw her with the dark passage behind her. She 
was a big woman with a weather-beaten but un- 
wrinkled face; her lips were held tightly to- 
gether, and her eyes looked with a curious dulled 
brightness into his. He looked at her shoes, which 
were like bundles. If it were summer she would 
be barefoot. . . . Bowman, who automatically 
judged a woman’s age on sight, set her age at fifty. 
She wore a formless garment of some gray coarse 
material, rough-dried from a washing, from which 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 237 

her arms appeared pink and unexpectedly round. 
When she never said a word, and sustained her 
quiet pose of holding the lamp, he was convinced 
of the strength in her body. 

“Good afternoon, madam,” he said. 

She stared on, whether at him or at the air 
around him he could not tell, but after a mo- 
ment she lowered her eyes to show that she would 
listen to whatever he had to say. 

“I wonder if you would be interested—” He 
tried once more. “An accident— my car . . .” 

Her voice emerged low and remote, like a 
sound across a lake. “Sonny he ain’t here.” 

“Sonny?” 

“Sonny ain’t here now.” 

Her son— a fellow able to bring my car up, he 
decided in blurred relief. He pointed down the 
hill. “My car’s in the bottom of the ditch. I’ll 
need help.” 

“Sonny ain’t here, but he’ll be here.” 

She was becoming clearer to him and her voice 
stronger, and Bowman saw that she was stupid. 

He was hardly surprised at the deepening post- 
ponement and tedium of his journey. He took a 
breath, and heard his voice speaking over the 
silent blows of his heart. “I was sick. I am not 
strong yet. . . . May I come in?” 

He stooped and laid his big black hat over 
the handle on his bag. It was a humble motion, 



238 A Curtain of Green 

almost a bow, that instantly struck him as absurd 
and betraying of all his weakness. He looked up 
at the woman, the wind blowing his hair. He 
might have continued for a long time in this un- 
familiar attitude; he had never been a patient 
man, but when he was sick he had learned to sink 
submissively into the pillows, to wait for his medi- 
cine. He waited on the woman. 

Then she, looking at him with blue eyes, 
turned and held open the door, and after a mo- 
ment Bowman, as if convinced in his action, stood 
erect and followed her in. 

Inside, the darkness of the house touched him 
like a professional hand, the doctor’s. The woman 
set the half-cleaned lamp on a table in the center 
of the room and pointed, also like a professional 
person, a guide, to a chair with a yellow cowhide 
seat. She herself crouched on the hearth, drawing 
her knees up under the shapeless dress. 

At first he felt hopefully secure. His heart was 
quieter. The room was enclosed in the gloom of 
yellow pine boards. He could see the other room, 
with the foot of an iron bed showing, across the 
passage. The bed had been made up with a red- 
and-yellow pieced quilt that looked like a map or 
a picture, a little like his grandmother’s girlhood 
painting of Rome burning. 

He had ached for coolness, but in this room it 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 239 

was cold. He stared at the hearth with dead coals 
lying on it and iron pots in the corners. The 
hearth and smoked chimney were of the stone 
he had seen ribbing the hills, mostly slate. Why 
is there no fire? he wondered. 

And it was so still. The silence of the fields 
seemed to enter and move familiarly through the 
house. The wind used the open hall. He felt that 
he was in a mysterious, quiet, cool danger. It 
was necessary to do what? ... To talk. 

“I have a nice line of women’s low-priced shoes 
. . .” he said. 

But the woman answered, “Sonny ’ll be here. 
He’s strong. Sonny ’ll move your car.” 

“Where is he now?” 

“Farms for Mr. Redmond.” 

Mr. Redmond. Mr. Redmond. That was some- 
one he would never have to encounter, and he 
was glad. Somehow the name did not appeal to 
him. ... In a flare of touchiness and anxiety. 
Bowman wished to avoid even mention of un- 
known men and their unknown farms. 

“Do you two live here alone? He was sur- 
prised to hear his old voice, chatty, confidentHl, 
inflected for selling shoes, asking a question like 
that-a thing he did not even want to know. 

“Yes. We are alone.” 

He was surprised at the way she answered. She 
had taken a long time to say that. She had nodded 



240 A Curtain of Green 

her head in a deep way too. Had she wished to 
affect him with some sort of premonition? he won- 
dered unhappily. Or was it only that she would 
not help him, after all, by talking with him? For 
he was not strong enough to receive the impact 
of unfamiliar things without a little talk to break 
their fail. He had lived a month in which noth- 
ing had happened except in his head and his 
body— an almost inaudible life of heartbeats and 
dreams that came back, a life of fever and privacy, 
a delicate life which had left him weak to the 
point of— what? Of begging. The pulse in his palm 
leapt like a trout in a brook. 

He wondered over and over why the woman 
did not go ahead with cleaning the lamp. What 
prompted her to stay there across the room, 
silently bestowing her presence upon him? He 
saw that with her it was not a time for doing little 
tasks. Her face was grave; she was feeling how 
right she was. Perhaps it was only politeness. In 
docility he held his eyes stiffly wide; they fixed 
themselves on the woman’s clasped hands as 
though she held the cord they were strung on. 

Then, “Sonny’s coming,’’ she said. 

He himself had not heard anything, but there 
came a man passing the window and then plung- 
ing in at the door, with two hounds beside him. 
Sonny was a big enough man, with his belt slung 
low about his hips. He looked at least thirty. He 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 241 

had a hot, red face that was yet full of silence. 
He wore muddy blue pants and an old military 
coat stained and patched. World War? Bowman 
wondered. Great God, it was a Confederate coat. 
On the back of his light hair he had a wide filthy 
black hat which seemed to insult Bowman’s own. 
He pushed down the dogs from his chest. He was 
strong, with dignity and heaviness in his way of 
moving. . . . There was the resemblance to his 
mother. 

They stood side by side. . . . He must account 
again for his presence here. 

“Sonny, this man, he had his car to run off over 
the prec’pice an’ wants to know if you will git 
it out for him,” the woman said after a few 
minutes. 

Bowman could not even state his case. 

Sonny’s eyes lay upon him. 

He knew he should offer explanations and show 
money— at least appear either penitent or authori- 
tative. But all he could do was to shrug slightly. 

Sonny brushed by him going to the window, 
followed by the eager dogs, and looked out. There 
was effort even in the way he was looking, as if 
he could throw his sight out like a rope. Without 
turning Bowman felt that his own eyes could have 
seen nothing: it was too far. 

“Got me a mule out there an’ got me a block 



242 A Curtain of Green 

an’ tackle,” said Sonny meaningfully. “I could 
catch me my mule an’ git me my ropes, an’ before 
long I’d git your car out the ravine.” 

He looked completely around the room, as if 
in meditation, 'his eyes roving in their own dis- 
tance. Then he pressed his lips firmly and yet 
shyly together, and with the dogs ahead of him 
this time, he lowered his head and strode out. The 
hard earth sounded, cupping to his powerful 
way of walking— almost a stagger. 

Mischievously, at the suggestion of those 
sounds. Bowman’s heart leapt again. It seemed 
to walk about inside him. 

“Sonny’s goin’ to do it,” the woman said. She 
said it again, singing it almost, like a song. She 
was sitting in her place by the hearth. 

Without looking out, he heard some shouts 
and the dogs barking and the pounding of hoofs 
in short runs on the hill. In a few minutes Sonny 
passed under the window with a rope, and there 
was a brown mule with quivering, shining, pur- 
ple-looking ears. The mule actually looked in 
the window. Under its eyelashes it turned target- 
like eyes into his. Bowman averted his head and 
saw the woman looking serenely back at the mule, 
with only satisfaction in her face. 

She sang a little more, under her breath. It 
occurred to him, and it seemed quite marvelous, 
that she was not really talking to him, but rather 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 243 

following the thing that came about with words 
that were unconscious and part of her looking. 

So he said nothing, and this time when he did 
not reply he felt a curious and strong emotion, not 
fear, rise up in him. 

This time, when his heart leapt, something- 
his soul— seemed to leap too, like a little colt in- 
vited out of a pen. He stared at the woman while 
the frantic nimbleness of his feeling made his 
head sway. He could not move; there was noth- 
ing he could do, unless perhaps he might embrace 
this woman who sat there growing old and shape- 
less before him. 

But he wanted to leap up, to say to her, I have 
been sick and I found out then, only then, how 
lonely I am. Is it too late? My heart puts up a 
struggle inside me, and you may have heard it, 
protesting against emptiness. ... It should be 
full, he would rush on to tell her, thinking of his 
heart now as a deep lake, it should be holding 
love like other hearts. It should be flooded with 
love. There would be a warm spring day . . . 
Come and stand in my heart, whoever you are, 
and a whole river would cover your feet and rise 
higher and take your knees in whirlpools, and 
draw you down to itself, your whole body, your 
heart too. 

But he moved a trembling hand across his eyes, 
and looked at the placid crouching woman across 



244 ^ Curtain of Green 

the room. She was still as a statue. He felt ashamed 
and exhausted by the thought that he might, in 
one more moment, have tried by simple words 
and embraces to communicate some strange thing 
—something which seemed always to have just 
escaped him . . . 

Sunlight touched the furthest pot on the hearth. 
It was late afternoon. This time tomorrow he 
would be somewhere on a good graveled road, 
driving his car past things that happened to peo- 
ple, quicker than their happening. Seeing ahead 
to the next day, he was glad, and knew that this 
was no time to embrace an old woman. He could 
feel in his pounding temples the readying of his 
blood for motion and for hurrying away. 

“Sonny’s hitched up your car by now,’’ said the 
woman. “He’ll git it out the ravine right shortly.’’ 

“Fine!” he cried with his customary enthusiasm. 

Yet it seemed a long time that they waited. It 
began to get dark. Bowman was cramped in his 
chair. Any man should know enough to get up 
and walk around while he waited. There was 
something like guilt in such stillness and silence. 

But instead of getting up, he listened. . . . His 
breathing restrained, his eyes powerless in the 
growing dark, he listened uneasily for a warning 
sound, forgetting in wariness what it would be. 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 245 

Before long he heard something— soft, continuous, 
insinuating. 

“What’s that noise?” he asked, his voice jump- 
ing into the dark. Then wildly he was afraid it 
would be his heart beating so plainly in the quiet 
room, and she would tell him so. 

“You might hear the stream,” she said grudg- 
ingly. 

Her voice was closer. She was standing by the 
table. He wondered why she did not light the 
lamp. She stood there in the dark and did not 
light it. 

Bowman would never speak to her now, for 
the time was past. I’ll sleep in the dark, he 
thought, in his bewilderment pitying himself. 

Heavily she moved on to the window. Her 
arm, vaguely white, rose straight from her full 
side and she pointed out into the darkness. 

“That white speck’s Sonny,” she said, talking 
to herself. • 

He turned unwillingly and peered over her 
shoulder; he hesitated to rise and stand beside her. 
His eyes searched the dusky air. The white speck 
floated smoothly toward her finger, like a leaf on 
a river, growing whiter in the dark. It was as if 
she had shown him something secret, part of her 
life, but had offered no explanation. He looked 
away. He was moved almost to tears, feeling for 
no reason that she had made a silent declaration 



246 A Curtain of Green 

equivalent to his own. His hand waited upon his 
chest. 

Then a step shook the house, and Sonny was 
in the room. Bowman felt how the woman left 
him there and went to the other man’s side. 

“I done got your car out, mister,” said Sonny’s 
voice in the dark. “She’s settin’ a-waitin’ in the 
road, turned to go back where she come from.” 

“Fine!” said Bowman, projecting his own voice 
to loudness. “I’m surely much obliged— I could 
never have done it myself— I was sick. . . .” 

“I could do it easy,” said Sonny. 

Bowman could feel them both waiting in the 
dark, and he could hear the dogs panting out in 
the yard, waiting to bark when he should go. He 
felt strangely helpless and resentful. Now that he 
could go, he longed to stay. From what was he 
being deprived? His chest was rudely shaken by 
the violence of his heart. These people cherished 
something here that he could not see, they with- 
held some ancient promise of food and warmth 
and light. Between them they had a conspiracy. 
He thought of the way she had moved away from 
him and gone to Sonny, she had flowed toward 
him. He was shaking with cold, he was tired, and 
it was not fair. Humbly and yet angrily he stuck 
his hand into his pocket. 

“Of course I’m going to pay you for every- 
thing—” 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 247 

“We don’t take money for such,” said Sonny’s 
voice belligerently. 

“I want to pay. But do something more . . . 
Let me stay— tonight. . . .” He took another step 
toward them. If only they could see him, they 
would know his sincerity, his real need! His voice 
went on, “I’m not very strong yet. I’m not able 
to walk far, even back to my car, maybe, I don’t 
know— I don’t know exactly where I am—” 

He stopped. Fie felt as if he might burst into 
tears. What would they think of him! 

Sonny came over and put his hands on him. 
Bowman felt them pass (they were professional 
too) across his chest, over his hips. He could feel 
Sonny’s eyes upon him in the dark. 

“You ain’t no revenuer come sneakin’ here, 
mister, ain’t got no gun?” 

To this end of nowhere! And yet he had come. 
He made a grave answer. “No.” 

“You can stay.” 

“Sonny,” said the woman, “you’ll have to borry 
some fire.” 

“I’ll go git it from Redmond’s,” said Sonny. 

“What?” Bowman strained to hear their words 
to each other. 

“Our fire, it’s out, and Sonny’s got to borry 
some, because its dark an’ cold,” she said. 

“But matches— I have matches—” 



248 A Curtain of Green 

“We don’t have no need for ’em,” she said 
proudly. “Sonny’s goin’ after his own fire.” 

“I’m goin’ to Redmond’s,” said Sonny with 
an air of importance, and he went out. 

After they had waited a while. Bowman looked 
out the window and saw a light moving over the 
hill. It spread itself out like a little fan. It zig- 
zagged along the field, darting and swift, not like 
Sonny at all. . . . Soon enough, Sonny staggered 
in, holding a burning stick behind him in tongs, 
fire flowing in his wake, blazing light into the 
corners of the room. 

“We’ll make a fire now,” the woman said, tak- 
ing the brand. 

When that was done she lit the lamp. It showed 
its dark and light. The whole room turned golden- 
yellow like some sort of flower, and the walls 
smelled of it and seemed to tremble with the quiet 
rushing of the fire and the waving of the burning 
lampwick in its funnel of light. 

The woman moved among the iron pots. With 
the tongs she dropped hot coals on top of the 
iron lids. They made a set of soft vibrations, like 
the sound of a bell far away. 

She looked up and over at Bowman, but be 
could not answer. He tvas trembling. . . . 

“Have a drink, mister?” Sonny asked. He had 
brought in a chair from the other room and sat 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 249 

astride it with his folded arms across the back. 
Now we are all visible to one another, Bowman 
thought, and cried, “Yes sir, you bet, thanks!” 

“Come after me and do just what I do,” said 
Sonny. 

It was another excursion into the dark. They 
went through the hall, out to the back of the 
house, past a shed and a hooded well. They 
came to a wilderness of thicket. 

“Down on your knees,” said Sonny. 

“What?” Sweat broke out on his forehead. 

He understood when Sonny began to crawl 
through a sort of tunnel that the bushes made 
over the ground. He followed, startled in spite 
of himself when a twig or a thorn touched him 
gently without making a sound, clinging to him 
and finally letting him go. 

Sonny stopped crawling and, crouched on his 
knees, began to dig with both his hands into the 
dirt. Bowman shyly struck matches and made a 
light. In a few minutes Sonny pulled up a jug. 
He poured out some of the whisky into a bottle 
from his coat pocket, and buried the jug again. 
“You never know who’s liable to knock at your 
door,” he said, and laughed. “Start back,” he said, 
almost formally. “Ain’t no need for us to drink 
outdoors, like hogs.” 

At the table by the fire, sitting opposite each 
other in their chairs. Sonny and Bowman took 



250 A Curtain of Green 

drinks out of the bottle, passing it across. The 
dogs slept; one of them was having a dream. 

“This is good,” said Bowman. “This is what 
I needed.” It was just as though he were drinking 
the fire off the hearth. 

“He makes it,” said the woman with quiet 
pride. 

She was pushing the coals off the pots, and the 
smells of corn bread and coffee circled the room. 
She set everything on the table before the men, 
with a bone-handled knife stuck into one of the 
potatoes, splitting out its golden fiber. Then she 
stood for a minute looking at tliem, tall and full 
above them where they sat. She leaned a little 
toward them. 

“You all can eat now,” she said, and suddenly 
smiled. 

Bowman had just happened to be looking at 
her. He set his cup back on the table in unbeliev- 
ing protest. A pain pressed at his eyes. He saw 
that she was not an old woman. She was young, 
still young. He could think of no number of years 
for her. She was the same age as Sonny, and she 
belonged to him. She stood with the deep dark 
corner of the room behind her, the shifting yel- 
low light scattering over her head and her gray 
formless dress, trembling over her tall body when 
it bent over them in its sudden communication. 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 251 

She was young. Her teeth were shining and her 
eyes glowed. She turned and walked slowly and 
heavily out of the room, and he heard her sit 
down on the cot and then lie do'wn. The pattern 
on the quilt moved. 

“She’s goin’ to have a baby,’’ said Sonny, pop- 
ping a bite into his mouth. 

Bowman could not speak. He was shocked with 
knowing what was really in this house. A mar- 
riage, a fruitful marriage. That simple thing. Any- 
one could have had that. 

Somehow he felt unable to be indignant or 
protest, although some sort of joke had certainly 
been played upon him. There was nothing remote 
or mysterious here— only something private. The 
only secret was the ancient communication be- 
tween two people. But the memory of the woman’s 
waiting silently by the cold hearth, of the man’s 
stubborn journey a mile away to get fire, and hotv 
they finally brought out their food and drink and 
filled the room proudly with all they had to show, 
was suddenly too clear and too enormous within 
him for response. . . . 

“You ain’t as hungry as you look,” said Sonny. 

The woman came out of the bedroom as soon 
as the men had finished, and ate her supper while 
her husband stared peacefully into the fire. 

Then they put the dogs out, with the food 
that was left. 



258 A Curtain of Green 

“I think I’d better sleep here by the fire, on 
the floor,” said Bowman. 

He felt that he had been cheated, and that he 
could afford now to be generous. Ill though he 
was, he was not going to ask them for their bed. 
He was through with asking favors in this house, 
now that he understood what was there. 

“Sure, mister.” 

But he had not known yet how slowly he un- 
derstood. They had not meant to give him their 
bed. After a little interval they both rose and look- 
ing at him gravely went into the other room. 

He lay stretched by the fire until it grew low 
and dying. He watched every tongue of blaze lick 
out and vanish. “There will be special reduced 
prices on all footwear during the month of Janu- 
ary,” he found himself repeating quietly, and then 
he lay with his lips tight shut. 

How many noises the night had! He heard the 
stream running, the fire dying, and he was sure 
now that he heard his heart beating, too, the 
sound it made under his ribs. He heard breathing, 
round and deep, of the man and his wife in the 
room across the passage. And that was all. But 
emotion swelled patiently within him, and he 
wished that the child were his. 

He must get back to where he had been before. 
He stood weakly before the red coals and put on 
his overcoat. It felt too heavy on his shoulders. 



Death of A Traveling Salesman 253 

As he started out he looked and saw that the 
woman had never got through with cleaning the 
lamp. On some impulse he put all the money 
from his billfold under its fluted glass base, al- 
most ostentatiously. 

Ashamed, shrugging a little, and then shivering, 
he took his bags and went out. The cold of che 
air seemed to lift him bodily. The moon was in 
the sky. 

On the slope he began to run, he could not 
help it. Just as he reached the road, where his 
car seemed to sit in the moonlight like a boat, 
his heart began to give off tremendous explosions 
like a rifle, bang bang bang. 

He sank in fright onto the road, his bags falling 
about him. He felt as if all this had happened be- 
fore. He covered his heart with both hands to keep 
anyone from hearing the noise it made. 

But nobody heard it. 



POWERHOUSE 


CybwERHOUSE is playing! 

He’s here on tour from the city— “Powerhouse 
and His Keyboard’’— “Powerhouse and His Tas- 
manians’’— think of the things he calls himself! 
There’s no one in the world like him. You can’t 
tell what he is. “Nigger man’’?— he looks more 
Asiatic, monkey, Jewish, Babylonian, Peruvian, 
fanatic, devil. He has pale gray eyes, heavy lids, 
maybe horny like a lizard’s, but big glowing eyes 
when they’re open. He has African feet of the 
greatest size, stomping, both together, on each 
side of the pedals. He’s not coal black— beverage 
colored— looks like a preacher when his mouth is 
shut, but then it opens— vast and obscene. And 
his mouth is going every minute: like a monkey’s 
when it looks for something. Improvising, com- 
ing on a light and childish melody— ^mooc/i— he 
loves it with his mouth. 

Is it possible that he could be this! When you 
have him there performing for you, that’s what 

254 



Powerhouse 


you feel. You know people on a stage— and people 
of a darker race— so likely to be marvelous, fright- 
ening. 

This is a white dance. Powerhouse is not a 
show-off like the Harlem boys, not drunk, not 
crazy— he’s in a trance; he’s a person of joy, a 
fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look 
of hideous, powerful rapture on his face. Big 
arched eyebrows that never stop traveling, like a 
Jew’s— wandering-Jew eyebrows. When he plays 
he beats down piano and seat and wears them 
away. He is in motion every moment— what could 
be more obscene? There he is with his great head, 
fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long 
yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about 
the size of bananas. Of course you know how he 
sounds— you’ve heard him on records— but still 
you need to see him. He’s going all the time, like 
skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. 
It makes everybody crowd around, here in this 
shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like 
posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for 
the mind-reading horse in handwriting magni- 
fied five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays 
his finger on a key with the promise and serenity 
of a sibyl touching the book. 

Powerhouse is so monstrous he sends everybody 
into oblivion. When any group, any performers, 
come to town, don’t people always come out and 



256 A Cm tarn oj Green 

hover near, leaning inward about them, to learn 
what it is? What is it? Listen. Remember how it 
was with the acrobats. Watch them carefully, 
hear the least word, especially what they say to 
one another, in another language— don’t let them 
escape you; it’s the only time for hallucination, 
the last time. They can’t stay. They’ll be some- 
tvhere else this time tomorrow. 

Powerhouse has as much as possible done by 
signals. Everybody, laughing as if to hide a weak- 
ness, will sooner or later hand him up a written 
request. Powerhouse reads each one, studying 
with a secret face: that is the face which looks like 
a mask— anybody’s; there is a moment when he 
makes a decision. Then a light slides under his 
eyelids, and he says, “92!” or some combination 
of figures— never a name. Before a number the 
band is all frantic, misbehaving, pushing, like 
children in a schoolroom, and he is the teacher 
getting silence. His hands over the keys, he says 
sternly, “You-all ready? You-all ready to do some 
serious walking?”— waits— then, stamp. Quiet. 
STAMP, for the second time. This is absolute. Then 
a set of rhythmic kicks against the floor to com- 
municate the tempo. Then, O Lord! say the dis- 
tended eyes from beyond the boundary of the 
trumpets. Hello and good-bye, and they are all 
down the first note like a waterfall. 



Powerhouse 


257 

This note marks the end o£ any known disci- 
pline. Powerhouse seems to abandon them all— 
he himself seems lost— down in the song, yelling 
up like somebody in a whirlpool— not guiding 
them— hailing them only. But he knows, really. 
He cries out, but he must know exactly. “Mercy! 

. . . What I say! . . . Yeah!” And then drifting, 
listening— “Where that skin beater?”— wanting 
drums, and starting up and pouring it out in the 
greatest delight and brutality. On the sweet pieces 
such a leer for everybody! He looks down so 
benevolently upon all our faces and whispers the 
lyrics to us. And if you could hear him at this 
moment on “Marie, the Dawn is Breaking”! He’s 
going up the keyboard with a few fingers in some 
very derogatory triplet-routine, he gets higher and 
higher, and then he looks over the end of the 
piano, as if over a cliff. But not in a show-off way 
—the song makes him do it. 

He loves the way they all play, too— all those 
next to him. The far section of the band is all 
studious, wearing glasses, every one— they don’t 
count. Only those playing around Powerhouse 
are the real ones. He has a bass fiddler from Vicks- 
burg, black as pitch, named Valentine, who plays 
with his eyes shut and talking to himself, very 
young: Powerhouse has to keep encouraging him. 
“Go on, go on, give it up, bring it on out there!” 



£58 A Curtain of Green 

When you heard him like that on records, did 
you know he was really pleading? 

He calls Valentine out to take a solo. 

“What you going to play?” Powerhouse looks 
out kindly from behind the piano; he opens his 
mouth and shows his tongue, listening. 

Valentine looks down, drawing against his in- 
strument, and says without a lip movement, 
“ ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’ ” 

He has a clarinet player named Little Brother, 
and loves to listen to anything he does. He’ll smile 
and say, “Beautiful!” Little Brother takes a step 
forward when he plays and stands at the very 
front, with the whites of his eyes like fishes swim- 
ming. Once when he played a low note. Power- 
house muttered in dirty praise, “He went clear 
downstairs to get that one!” 

After a long time, he holds up the number of 
fingers to tell the band how many choruses still 
to go— usually five. He keeps his directions down 
to signals. 

It’s a bad night outside. It’s a white dance, and 
nobody dances, except a few straggling jitterbugs 
and two elderly couples. Everybody just stands 
around the band and watches Powerhouse. Some- 
times they steal glances at one another, as if to 
say. Of course, you know how it is with them— 
Negroes— band leaders— they would play the same 



Powerhouse 


259 

way, giving all they’ve got, for an audience of 
one. . . . When somebody, no matter who, gives 
everything, it makes people feel ashamed for him. 

Late at night they play the one waltz they will 
ever consent to play— by request, “Pagan Love 
Song.” Powerhouse’s head rolls and sinks like a 
weight between his waving shoulders. He groans, 
and his fingers drag into the keys heavily, holding 
on to the notes, retrieving. It is a sad song. 

“You know what happened to me?” says Potver- 
house. 

Valentine hums a response, dreaming at the 
bass. 

“I got a telegram my wife is dead,” says Power- 
house, with wandering fingers. 

“Uh-huh?” 

His mouth gathers and forms a barbarous O 
^v'hile his fingers walk up straight, unwillingly, 
three octaves. 

“Gypsy? Vdiy how come her to die, didn’t you 
just phone her up in the night last night long 
distance?” 

“Telegram say— here the words; Your wife is 
dead.” He puts 4/4 over the 3/4. 

“Not but four words?” This is the drummer, 
an unpopular boy named Scoot, a disbelieving 
maniac. 

Powerhouse is shaking his vast cheeks. “What 



26o a Curtain of Green 

the hell was she trying to do? What was she 

up to?” 

“What name has it got signed, if you got a tele- 
gram?” Scoot is spitting away with those wire 
brushes. 

Little Brother, the clarinet player, who cannot 
now speak, glares and tilts back. 

“Uranus Knockwood is the name signed.” 
Powerhouse lifts his eyes open. “Ever heard of 
him?” A bubble shoots out on his lip like a plate 
on a counter. 

Valentine is beating slowly on with his palm 
and scratching the strings with his long blue nails. 
He is fond of a waltz. Powerhouse interrupts him. 

“I don’t know him. Don’t know who he is.” 
Valentine shakes his head with the closed eyes. 

“Say it agin.” 

“Uranus Knockwood.” 

“That ain’t Lenox Avenue.” 

“It ain’t Broadway.” 

“Ain’t ever seen it wrote out in any print, even 
for horse racing.” 

“Hell, that’s on a star, boy, ain’t it?” Crash of 
the cymbals. 

“What the hell was she up to?” Powerhouse 
shudders. “Tell me, tell me, tell me.” He makes 
triplets, and begins a new chorus. He holds three 
fingers up. 



Powerhouse 361 

“You say you got a telegram.” This is Valentine, 
patient and sleepy, beginning again. 

Powerhouse is elaborate. “Yas, the time I go 
out, go way downstairs along a long cor-ri-dor to 
where they puts us: coming back along the cor-ri- 
dor: steps out and hands me a telegram: Your 
wife is dead.” 

“Gypsy?” The drummer like a spider over his 
drums. 

“Aaaaaaaaa!” shouts Powerhouse, flinging out 
both powerful arms for three whole beats to flex 
his muscles, then kneading a dough of bass notes. 
His eyes glitter. He plays the piano like a drum 
sometimes— -why not? 

“Gypsy? Such a dancer?” 

“Why you don’t hear it straight from your 
agent? Why it ain’t come from headquarters? 
What you been doing, getting telegrams in the 
corridor, signed nobody?” 

They all laugh. End of that chorus. 

“What time is it?” Powerhouse calls. “What 
the hell place is this? Where is my watch and 
chain?” 

“I hang it on you,” whimpers Valentine. “It 
still there.” 

There it rides on Powerhouse’s great stomach, 
down where he can never see it. 

“Sure did hear some clock striking twelve while 
ago. Must be midnight.” 



202 


A Curtain of Green 

“It going to be intermission,” Powerhouse de- 
clares, lifting up his finger with the signet ring. 

He draws the chorus to an end. He pulls a big 
Northern hotel towel out of the deep pocket in 
his vast, special-cut tux pants and pushes his fore- 
head into it. 

“If she went and killed herself!” he says with a 
hidden face. “If she up and jumped out that 
v.'indow!” He gets to his feet, turning vaguely, 
wearing the towel on his head. 

“Ha, ha!” 

“Sheik, sheik!” 

“She wouldn’t do that.” Little Brother sets 
down his clarinet like a precious vase, and speaks. 
He still looks like an East Indian queen, implac- 
able, divine, and full of snakes. “You ain’t going 
to expect people doing what they says over long 
distance.” 

“Come on!” roars Powerhouse. He is already 
at the back door, he has pulled it wide open, and 
with a wild, gathered-up face is smelling the 
terrible night. 

Powerhouse, Valentine, Scoot and Little 
Brother step outside into the drenching rain. 

“Well, they emptying buckets,” says Power- 
house in a mollified voice. On the street he holds 
his hands out and turns up the blanched palms 
like sieves. 

A hundred dark, ragged, silent, delighted Ne- 



Powerhouse 263 

groes have come around from under the eaves of 
the hall, and follow wherever they go. 

“Watch out Little Brother don’t shrink,” says 
Powerhouse. “You just the right size now, clarinet 
don’t suck you in. You got a dry throat. Little 
Brother, you in the desert?” He reaches into the 
pocket and pulls out a paper of mints. “Now hold 
’em in your mouth— don’t chew ’em. I don’t carry 
around nothing without limit.” 

“Go in that joint and have beer,” says Scoot, 
who walks ahead. 

“Beer? Beer? You know what beer is? What do 
they say is beer? What’s beer? Where I been?” 

“Down yonder where it say World Cafe— that 
do?” They are in Negrotown now. 

Valentine patters over and holds open a screen 
door warped like a sea shell, bitter in the wet, and 
they walk in, stained darker with the rain and 
leaving footprints. Inside, sheltered dry smells 
stand like screens around a table covered with a 
red-checkered cloth, in the center of which flies 
hang onto an obelisk-shaped ketchup bottle. The 
midnight walls are checkered again with admon- 
ishing “Not Responsible” signs and black-figured, 
smoky calendars. It is a waiting, silent, limp room. 
There is a burned-out-looking nickelodeon and 
right beside it a long-necked wall instrument 
labeled “Business Phone, Don’t Keep Talking.” 
Circled phone numbers are written up every- 



264 A Curtain of Green 

where. There is a worn-out peacock feather hang- 
ing by a thread to an old, thin, pink, exposed 
light bulb, where it slowly turns around and 
around, whoever breathes. 

A waitress watches. 

“Come here, living statue, and get all this big 
order of beer we fixing to give.” 

“Never seen you before anywhere.” The wait- 
ress moves and comes forward and slowly shows 
little gold leaves and tendrils over her teeth. She 
shoves up her shoulders and breasts. “How I going 
to know who you might be? Robbers? Coming 
in out of the black of night right at midnight, 
setting down so big at my table?” 

“Boogers,” says Powerhouse, his eyes opening 
lazily as in a cave. 

The girl screams delicately with pleasure. O 
Lord, she likes talk and scares. 

“Where you going to find enough beer to put 
out on this here table?” 

She runs to the kitchen with bent elbows and 
sliding steps. 

“Here’s a million nickels,” says Powerhouse, 
pulling his hand out of his pocket and sprinkling 
coins out, all but the last one, which he makes 
vanish like a magician. 

Valentine and Scoot take the money over to 
the nickelodeon, which looks as battered as a slot 



Powerhouse 265 

machine, and read all the names of the records 
out loud. 

“Whose ‘Tuxedo Junction?” asks Powerhouse. 

“You know whose.” 

“Nickelodeon, I request you please to play 
‘Empty Red Blues’ and let Bessie Smith sing.” 

Silence: they hold it like a measure. 

“Bring me all those nickels on back here,” 
says Powerhouse. “Look at that! What you tell 
me the name of this place?” 

“White dance, w^eek night, raining, Alligator, 
Mississippi, long ways from home.” 

“Uh-huh.” 

“Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come 
Today” plays. 

The waitress, setting the tray of beer down on 
a back table, comes up taut and apprehensive as 
a hen. “Says in the kitchen, back there putting 
their eyes to little hole peeping out, that you is 
Mr. Powerhouse. . . . They knows from a pic- 
ture they seen.” 

“They seeing right tonight, that is him,” says 
Little Brother. 

“You him?” 

“That is him in the flesh,” says Scoot. 

“Does you wish to touch him?” asks Valentine. 
“Because he don’t bite.” 

“You passing through?” 



q66 a Curtain of Green 

“Now you got everything right.” 

She waits like a drop, hands languishing to- 
gether in front. 

“Little-Bit, ain’t you going to bring the beer?” 

She brings it, and goes behind the cash register 
and smiles, turning different ways. The little fillet 
of gold in her mouth is gleaming. 

“The Mississippi River’s here,” she says once. 

Now all the watching Negroes press in gently 
and bright-eyed through the door, as many as 
can get in. One is a little boy in a straw sombrero 
which has been coated with aluminum paint all 
over. 

Powerhouse, Valentine, Scoot and Little 
Brother drink beer, and their eyelids come to- 
gether like curtains. The wall and the rain and 
the humble beautiful waitress waiting on them 
and the other Negroes watching enclose them. 

“Listen!” whispers Powerhouse, looking into 
the ketchup bottle and slowly spreading his per- 
former’s hands over the damp, wrinkling cloth 
with the red squares. “Listen how it is. My wife 
gets missing me. Gypsy. She goes to the windo'w. 
She looks out and sees you know what. Street. 
Sign saying Hotel. People walking. Somebody 
iopks up. Old man. She looks down, out the win- 
dow. Well? . . . Ssssst! Plooey! What she do? 
Jump out and bust her brains all over the world.” 

He opens his eyes. 



Powerhouse 267 

"That’s it,” agrees Valentine. “You gets a tele- 
gram.” 

“Sure she misses you,” Little Brother adds. 

“No, it’s night time.” How softly he tells them! 
“Sure. It’s the night time. She say. What do I 
hear? Footsteps walking up the hall? That him? 
Footsteps go on oft. It’s not me. I’m in Alligator, 
Mississippi, she’s crazy. Shaking all over. Listens 
till her ears and all grow out like old music-box 
horns but still she can’t hear a thing. She says. All 
right! I’ll jump out the window then. Got on her 
nightgown. I know that nightgown, and her think- 
ing there. Says, Ho hum, all right, and jumps out 
the window. Is she mad at me! Is she crazy! She 
don’t leave nothing behind her!” 

“Ya! Ha!” 

“Brains and insides everywhere. Lord, Lord.” 

All the Avatching Negroes stir in their delight, 
and to their higher delight he says affectionately, 
“Listen! Rats in here.” 

“That must be the way, boss.” 

“Only, natv. Powerhouse, that ain’t true. That 
sound too bad.” 

“Does? I even know who finds her,” cries 
Povrerhouse. “That no-good pussyfooted croon- 
ing creeper, that creeper that follow around after 
me, coming up like weeds behind me, following 
around after me everything I do and messing 
around on the trail I leave. Bets my numbers. 



g68 A Curtain of Green 

sings my songs, gets close to my agent like a Betsy- 
bug; when I going out he just coming in. I got him 
now! I got my eye on him.” 

‘‘Know who he is?” 

‘‘Why, it’s that old Uranus KnockwoodI” 

‘‘Ya! Ha!” 

‘‘Yeah, and he coming now, he going to find 
Gypsy. There he is, coming around that corner, 
and Gypsy kadoodling down, oh-oh, watch out! 
Ssssst! Plooey! See, there she is in her little old 
nightgown, and her insides and brains all scattered 
round.” 

A sigh fills the room. 

“Hush about her brains. Hush about her in- 
sides.” 

“Ya! Ha! You talking about her brains and in- 
sides— old Uranus Knockwood,” says Powerhouse, 
“look down and say Jesus! He say. Look here what 
I’m walking round in!” 

They all burst into halloos of laughter. Power- 
house’s face looks like a big hot iron stove. 

“Why, he picks her up and carries her off!” he 
says. 

“Ya! Ha!” 

“Carries her back around the corner. . . 

“Oh, Powerhouse!” 

“You know him.” 

“Uranus KnockwoodI” 

“Yeahhh!” 



Powerhouse 269 

“He take our wives when we gone!” 

“He come in when we goes out!” 

“Uh-huh!” 

“He go out when we comes in!” 

“Yeahhh!” 

“He standing behind the door!” 

“Old Uranus Knockwood.” 

“You know him.” 

“Middle-size man.” 

“Wears a hat.” 

“That’s him.” 

Everybody in the room moans with pleasure. 
The little boy in the fine silver hat opens a paper 
and divides out a jelly roll among his followers. 

And out of the breathless ring somebody moves 
forward like a slave, leading a great logy Negro 
with bursting eyes, and says, “This here is Sugar- 
Stick Thompson, that dove down to the bottom 
of July Creek and pulled up all those drownded 
white people fall out of a boat. Last summer, 
pulled up fourteen.” 

“Hello,” says Powerhouse, turning and looking 
around at them all with his great daring face un- 
til they nearly suffocate. 

Sugar-Stick, their instrument, cannot speak; he 
can only look back at the others. 

“Can’t even swim. Done it by holding his 
breath,” says the fellow with the hero. 

Powerhouse looks at him seekingly. 



2^0 A Curtain of Green 

“I his half brother.” the fellow puts in. 

They step back. 

"Gypsy say/’ Powerhouse rumbles gently again, 
looking at them, “ ‘What is the use? I’m gonna 
jump out so far— so far. . . .’ Ssssst—!” 

“Don’t, boss, don’t do it agin,” says Little 
Brother. 

“It’s awful,” says the waitress. “I hates that Mr. 
Knockwoods. All that the truth?” 

“Want to see the telegram I got from him?” 
Powerhouse’s hand goes to the vast pocket. 

“Now wait, now wait, boss.” They all watch 
him. 

“It must be the real truth,” says the waitress, 
sucking in her lower lip, her luminous eyes turn- 
ing sadly, seeking the windows. 

“No, babe, it ain’t the truth.” His eyebrows 
fly up, and he begins to whisper to her out of his 
vast oven mouth. His hand stays in his pocket. 
“Truth is something worse, I ain’t said what, yet. 
It’s something hasn’t come to me, but I ain’t say- 
ing it won’t. And when it does, then want me to 
tell you?” He sniffs all at once, his eyes come open 
and turn up, almost too far. He is dreamily smil- 
ing. 

“Don’t, boss, don’t. Powerhouse!” 

“Oh!” the waitress screams. 

“Go on git out of here!” bellows Powerhouse, 



Powerhouse 27 1 

taking his hand out of his pocket and clapping 
after her red dress. 

The ring of watchers breaks and falls away. 

“Look at that! Intermission is up,” says Power- 
house. 

He folds money under a glass, and after they 
go out, Valentine leans back in and drops a nickel 
in the nickelodeon behind them, and it lights up 
and begins to play “The Goona Goo.” The feather 
dangles still. 

“Take a telegram!” Powerhouse shouts sud- 
denly up into the rain over the street. “Take a 
answer. Now what was that name?” 

They get a little tired. 

“Uranus Knockwood.” 

“You ought to know.” 

“Yas? Spell it to me.” 

They spell it all the ways it could be spelled. 
It puts them in a wonderful humor. 

“Here’s the answer. I got it right here. ‘What 
in the hell you talking about? Don’t make any dif- 
ference: I gotcha.’ Name signed: Powerhouse.” 

“That going to reach him. Powerhouse?” Valen- 
tine speaks in a maternal voice. 

“Yas, yas.” 

All hushing, following him up the dark street 
at a distance, like old rained-on black ghosts, the 
Negroes are afraid they will die laughing. 



272 A Curtain of Green 

Powerhouse throws back his vast head into the 
steaming rain, and a look of hopeful desire seems 
to blow somehow like a vapor from his own 
dilated nostrils over his face and bring a mist to 
his eyes. 

“Reach him and come out the other side.” 

“That’s it. Powerhouse, that’s it. You got him 
now.” 

Powerhouse lets out a long sigh. 

“But ain’t you going back there to call up 
Gypsy long distance, the way you did last night 
in that other place? I seen a telephone. . . . Just 
to see if she there at home?” 

There is a measure of silence. That is one crazy 
drummer that’s going to get his neck broken some 
day. 

“No,” grov/ls Powerhouse. “No! How many 
tliousand times tonight I got to say No?” 

He holds up his arm in the rain. 

“You sure-enough unroll your voice some night, 
it about reach up yonder to her,” says Little 
Brother, dismayed. 

They go on up the street, shaking the rain off 
and on them like birds. 

Back in the dance hall, they play “San” (99). 
The jitterbugs start up like windmills stationed 
over the floor, and in their orbits— one circle, an- 
other, a long stretch and a zigzag— dance the el- 



Powerhouse 


273 

derly couples with old smoothness, undisturbed 
and stately. 

When Powerhouse first came back from inter- 
mission, no doubt full of beer, they said, he got 
the band tuned up again in his own way. He 
didn’t strike the piano keys for pitch— he simply 
opened his mouth and gave falsetto howls— in 
A, D and so on— they tuned by him. Then he took 
hold of the piano, as if he saw it for the first time 
in his life, and tested it for strength, hit it down 
in the bass, played an octave with his elbow, lifted 
the top, looked inside, and leaned against it with 
all his might. He sat down and played it for a few 
minutes with outrageous force and got it under 
his power— a bass deep and coarse as a sea net- 
then produced something glimmering and fragile, 
and smiled. And who could ever remember any 
of the things he says? They are just inspired re- 
marks that roll out of his mouth like smoke. 

They’ve requested “Somebody Loves Me,” and 
he’s already done twelve or fourteen choruses, 
piling them up nobody knows how, and it will 
be a wonder if he ever gets through. Now and 
then he calls and shouts, “ ‘Somebody loves me! 
Somebody loves me, I wonder who!’ ” His mouth 
gets to be nothing but a volcano. “I wonder who!” 

“Maybe . . .” He uses all his right hand on 
a trill. 



274 ^ Curtain of Green 

“Maybe . . He pulls back his spread fingers, 
and looks out upon the place where he is. A vast, 
impersonal and yet furious grimace transfigures 
his wet face. 

. . Maybe it’s you!” 



A WORN PATH 


dyr WAS December— a bright 
frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the 
country there was an old Negro woman with her 
head tied in a red rag, coming along a path 
through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix 
Jackson. She was very old and small and she 
walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving 
a little from side to side in her steps, with the 
balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum 
in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small 
cane made from an umbrella, and with this she 
kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This 
made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, 
that seemed meditative like the chirping of a 
solitary little bird. 

She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to 
her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of 
bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat 
and tidy, but every time she took a step she might 
have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged 

275 



276 A Curtain of Green 

from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. 
Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pat- 
tern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles 
and as though a whole little tree stood in the mid- 
dle of her forehead, but a golden color ran un- 
derneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were 
illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. 
Under the red rag her hair came down on her 
neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and 
with an odor like copper. 

Now and then there was a quivering in the 
thicket. Old Phoenix said, “Out of my way, all 
you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and 
wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these 
feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild 
hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come 
running my direction. I got a long way.” Under 
her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber 
as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if 
to rouse up any hiding things. 

On she went. The woods were deep and still. 
The sun made the pine needles almost too bright 
to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones 
dropped as light as feathers. Down in the hollow 
was the mourning dove— it was not too late for 
him. 

The path ran up a hill. “Seem like there is 
chains about my feet, time I get this far,” she said, 
in the voice of argument old people keep to use 



A Worn Path 277 

with themselves. “Something always take a hold 
of me on this hill— pleads I should stay.” 

After she got to the top she turned and gave 
a full, severe look behind her where she had come. 
“Up through pines,” she said at length. “Now 
down through oaks.” 

Her eyes opened their widest, and she started 
down gently. But before she got to the bottom of 
the hill a bush caught her dress. 

Her fingers were busy and intent, but her skirts 
were full and long, so that before she could pull 
them free in one place they were caught in an- 
other. It was not possible to allow the dress to 
tear. “I in the thorny bush,” she said. “Thorns, 
you doing your appointed work. Never want to 
let folks pass, no sir. Old eyes thought you was 
a pretty little green bush.” 

Finally, trembling all over, she stood free, and 
after a moment dared to stoop for her cane. 

“Sun so high!” she cried, leaning back and look- 
ing, while the thick tears went over her eyes. “The 
time getting all gone here.” 

At the foot of this hill was a place where a log 
was laid across the creek. 

“Now comes the trial,” said Phoenix. 

Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log 
and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her 
cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in 
some parade, she began to march across. Then 



3-78 A Curtain of Green 

she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other 
side. 

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. 

But she sat down to rest. She spread her skirts 
on the bank around her and folded her hands over 
her knees. Up above her was a tree in a pearly 
cloud of mistletoe. She did not dare to close her 
eyes, and when a little boy brought her a plate 
with a slice of marble-cake on it she spoke to him. 
“That would be acceptable,” she said. But when 
she went to take it there was just her own hand in 
the air. 

So she left that tree, and had to go through a 
barbed-wire fence. There she had to creep and 
crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her 
fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps. But 
she talked loudly to herself: she could not let her 
dress be tom now, so late in the day, and she 
could not pay for having her arm or her leg sawed 
off if she got caught fast where she was. 

At last she was safe through the fence and risen 
up out in the clearing. Big dead trees, like black 
men with one arm, were standing in the purple 
stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a 
buzzard. 

“Who you watching?” 

In the furrow she made her way along. 

“Glad this not the season for bulls,” she said, 
looking sideways, “and the good Lord made his 



A Worn Path 


279 

snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter. A 
pleasure I don’t see no two-headed snake coming 
around that tree, where it come once. It took a 
while to get by him, back in the summer.” 

She passed through the old cotton and went 
into a field of dead corn. It whispered and shook 
and was taller than her head. “Through the maze 
now,” she said, for there was no path. 

Then there was something tall, black, and 
skinny there, moving before her. 

At first she took it for a man. It could have 
been a man dancing in the field. But she stood 
still and listened, and it did not make a sound. 
It was as silent as a ghost. 

“Ghost,” she said sharply, “who be you the 
ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by.” 

But there was no answer— only the ragged danc- 
ing in the wind. 

She shut her eyes, reached out her hand, and 
touched a sleeve. She found a coat and inside that 
an emptiness, cold as ice. 

“You scarecrow,” she said. Her face lighted. 
“I ought to be shut up for good,” she said with 
laughter. “My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest 
people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow,” she 
said, “while I dancing with you.” 

She kicked her foot over the furrow, and with 
mouth drawn down, shook her head once or twice 



aSo A Curtain of Green 

in a little strutting way. Some husks blew down 
and whirled in streamers about her skirts. 

Then she went on, parting her way from side 
to side with the cane, through the whispering 
field. At last she came to the end, to a wagon track 
where the silver grass blew between the red ruts. 
The quail were walking around like pullets, seem- 
ing all dainty and unseen. 

“Walk pretty,” she said. “This the easy place. 
This the easy going.” 

She followed the track, swaying through the 
quiet bare fields, through the little strings of trees 
silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from 
weather, with the doors and windows boarded 
shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. 
“I walking in their sleep,” she said, nodding her 
head vigorously. 

In a ravine she went where a spring was silently 
flowing through a hollow log. Old Phoenix bent 
and drank. “Sweet-gum makes the water sweet,” 
she said, and drank more. “Nobody know who 
made this well, for it was here when I was born.” 

The track crossed a swampy part where the 
moss hung as white as lace from every limb. “Sleep 
on, alligators, and blow your bubbles.” Then the 
track went into the road. 

Deep, deep the road went down between the 
high green-colored banks. Overhead the live-oaks 
met, and it was as dark as a cave. 



A Worn Path 


281 

A black dog with a lolling tongue came up out 
of the weeds by the ditch. She was meditating, 
and not ready, and when he came at her she only- 
hit him a little with her cane. Over she went in 
the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed. 

Down there, her senses drifted away. A dream 
visited her, and she reached her hand up, but 
nothing reached down and gave her a pull. So 
she lay there and presently went to talking. “Old 
woman,” she said to herself, “that black dog come 
up out of the weeds to stall your off, and now 
there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.” 

A white man finally came along and found her 
—a hunter, a young man, with his dog on a chain. 

“Well, Granny!” he laughed. “What are you 
doing there?” 

“Lying on my back like a June-bug waiting 
to be turned over, mister,” she said, reaching up 
her hand. 

He lifted her up, gave her a swing in the air, 
and set her down. “Anything broken. Granny?” 

“No sir, them old dead weeds is springy- 
enough,” said Phoenix, when she had got her 
breath. “I thank you for your trouble.” 

“Where do you live. Granny?” he asked, while 
the two dogs were growling at each other. 

“Away back yonder, sir, behind the ridge. You 
can’t even see it from here.” 

“On your way home?” 



282 A Curtain of Green 

“No sir, I going to town.” 

“Why, that’s too far! That’s as far as I walk 
when I come out myself, and I get something for 
my trouble.” He patted the stuffed bag he carried, 
and there hung down a little closed claw. It was 
one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bit- 
terly to show it was dead. “Now you go on home. 
Granny!” 

“I bound to go to town, mister,” said Phoenix. 
“The time come around.” 

He gave another laugh, filling the whole land- 
scape. “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t 
miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” 

But something held old Phoenix very still. The 
deep lines in her face went into a fierce and dib 
ferent radiation. Without warning, she had seen 
with her own eyes a flashing nickel fall out of the 
man’s pocket onto the ground. 

“How old are you. Granny?” he was saying. 

“There is no telling, mister,” she said, “no 
telling.” 

Then she gave a little cry and clapped her hands 
and said, “Git on away from here, dog! Look! 
Look at that dog!” She laughed as if in admira- 
tion. “He ain’t scared of nobody. He a big black 
dog.” She whispered, “Sic him!” 

“Watch me get rid of that cur,” said the man. 
“Sic him, Pete! Sic him!” 

Phoenix heard the dogs fighting, and heard the 



A Worn Path 283 

man running and throwing sticks. She even heard 
a gunshot. But she was slowly bending forward 
by that time, further and further forward, the lids 
stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing 
this in her sleep. Her chin w^as lowered almost to 
her knees. The yellow palm of her hand came 
out from the fold of her apron. Her fingers slid 
down and along the ground under the piece of 
money with the grace and care they would have 
in lifting an egg from under a setting hen. Then 
she slowly straightened up, she stood erect, and the 
nickel was in her apron pocket. A bird flew by. 
Her lips moved. “God watching me the whole 
time. I come to stealing.” 

The man came back, and his own dog panted 
about them. “Well, I scared him off that time,” 
he said, and then he laughed and lifted his gun 
and pointed it at Phoenix. 

She stood straight and faced him. 

“Doesn’t the gun scare you?” he said, still point- 
ing it. 

“No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my 
day, and for less than what I done,” she said, hold- 
ing utterly still. 

He smiled, and shouldered the gun. “Well, 
Granny,” he said, “you must be a hundred years 
old, and scared of nothing. I’d give you a dime 
if I had any money with me. But you take my 



284 A Curtain of Green 

advice and stay home, and nothing will happen 
to you.” 

“I bound to go on my way, mister,” said 
Phoenix. She inclined her head in the red rag. 
Then they went in different directions, but she 
could hear the gun shooting again and again over 
the hill. 

She walked on. The shadows hung from the 
oak trees to the road like curtains. Then she 
smelled wood-smoke, and smelled the river, and 
she saw a steeple and the cabins on their steep 
steps. Dozens of little black children whirled 
around her. There ahead was Natchez shining. 
Bells were ringing. She walked on. 

In the paved city it was Christmas time. There 
were red and green electric lights strung and criss- 
crossed everywhere, and all turned on in the day- 
time. Old Phoenix would have been lost if she 
had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on 
her feet to know where to take her. 

She paused quietly on the sidewalk where peo- 
ple were passing by. A lady came along in the 
■crowd, carrying an armful of red-, green- and 
silver-wrapped presents; she gave off perfume like 
the red roses in hot summer, and Phoenix stopped 
her. 

“Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?” She 
held up her foot. 

“What do you want. Grandma?” 



A Worn Path 


285 

“See my shoe,” said Phoenix. “Do «11 right for 
out in the country, but wouldn’t look right to go 
in a big building.” 

“Stand still then. Grandma,” said the lady. She 
put her packages down on the sidewalk beside her 
and laced and tied both shoes tightly. 

“Can’t lace ’em with a cane,” said Phoenix. 
“Thank you, missy. I doesn’t mind asking a nice 
lady to tie up my shoe, when I gets out on the 
street.” 

Moving slowly and from side to side, she went 
into the big building, and into a tower of steps, 
where she walked up and around and around 
until her feet knew to stop. 

She entered a door, and there she saw nailed 
up on the wall the document that had been 
stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold 
frame, which matched the dream that was hung 
up in her head. 

“Here I be,” she said. There was a fixed and 
ceremonial stiffness over her body. 

“A charity case, I suppose,” said an attendant 
who sat at the desk before her. 

But Phoenix only looked above her head. There 
was sweat on her face, the wrinkles in her skin 
shone like a bright net. 

“Speak up. Grandma,” the woman said. 
“What’s your name? We must have your history, 



286 


A Curtain of Green 

you know. Have you been here before? What 
seems to be the trouble with you?” 

Old Phoenix only gave a twitch to her face as 
if a fly were bothering her. 

“Are you deaf?” cried the attendant. 

But then the nurse came in. 

“Oh, that’s just old Aunt Phoenix,” she said. 
“She doesn’t come for herself— she has a little 
grandson. She makes these trips just as regular 
as clockwork. She lives away back off the Old 
Natchez Trace.” She bent down. “Well, Aunt 
Phoenix, why don’t you just take a seat? We won’t 
keep you standing after your long trip.” She 
pointed. 

The old woman sat down, bolt upright in the 
chair. 

“Now, how is the boy?” asked the nurse. 

Old Phoenix did not speak. 

“I said, how is the boy?” 

But Phoenix only waited and stared straight 
ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into 
rigidity. 

“Is his throat any better?” asked the nurse. 
“Aunt Phoenix, don’t you hear me? Is your grand- 
son’s throat any better since the last time you came 
for the medicine?” 

With her hands on her knees, the old woman 
waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she 
were in armor. 



A Worn Path 287 

“You mustn’t take up our time this way. Aunt 
Phoenix,’’ the nurse said. “Tell us quickly about 
your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, 
is he?” 

At last there came a flicker and then a flame 
of comprehension across her face, and she spoke. 

“My grandson. It was my memory had left me. 
There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.” 

“Forgot?” The nurse frowned. “After you came 
so far?” 

Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging 
a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened 
in the night. “I never did go to school, I was too 
old at the Surrender,” she said in a soft voice. 
“I’m an old woman without an education. It was 
my memory fail me. My little grandson, he is just 
the same, and I forgot it in the coming.” 

“Throat never heals, does it?” said the nurse, 
speaking in a loud, sure voice to old Phoenix. 
By now she had a card with something written 
on it, a little list. “Yes. Swallowed lye. When 
was it?— January— two- three years ago—” 

Phoenix spoke unasked now. “No, missy, he 
not dead, he just the same. Every little while his 
throat begin to close up again, and he not able 
to swallow. He not get his breath. He not able 
to help himself. So the time come around, and I 
go on another trip for the soothing medicine.” 

“All right. The doctor said as long as you came 



s88 A Curtain of Green 

to get it, you could have it,” said the nurse. “But 
it’s an obstinate case.” 

“My little grandson, he sit up there in the house 
all wrapped up, waiting by himself,” Phoenix 
went on. “We is the only two left in the world. 
He sufiEer and it don’t seem to put him back at 
all. He got a sweet look. He going to last. He wear 
a little patch quilt and peep out holding his 
mouth open like a little bird. I remembers so 
plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, 
the whole enduring time. I could tell him from 
all the others in creation.” 

“All right.” The nurse was trying to hush 
her now. She brought her a bottle of medicine. 
“Charity,” she said, making a check mark in a 
book. 

Old Phoenix held the bottle close to her eyes, 
and then carefully put it into her pocket. 

“I thank you,” she said. 

“It’s Christmas time. Grandma,” said the at- 
tendant. “Could I give you a few pennies out 
of my purse?” 

“Five pennies is a nickel,” said Phoenix stiffly. 

“Here’s a nickel,” said the attendant. 

Phoenix rose carefully and held out her hand. 
She received the nickel and then fished the other 
nickel out of her pocket and laid it beside the new 
one. She stared at her palm closely, with her head 
on one side. 



A Worn Path 


289 

Then she gave a tap with her cane on the floor. 

“This is what come to me to do,” she said. “I 
going to the store and buy my child a little wind- 
mill they sells, made out of paper. He going to 
find it hard to believe there such a thing in the 
world. I’ll march myself back where he waiting, 
holding it straight up in this hand.” 

She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, 
turned around, and walked out of the doctor’s 
office. Then her slow step began on the stairs, 
going down. 




THE WIDE NET 


AND OTHER STORIES 

TO MY MOTHER, 
CHESTINA ANDREWS WELTY 




FIRST LOVE 


^/L/hatever happened, it hap- 
pened in extraordinary times, in a season of 
dreams, and in Natchez it was the bitterest winter 
of them all. The north wind struck one January 
night in 1807 with an insistent penetration, as if 
it followed the settlers down by their own course, 
screaming down the river bends to drive them 
further still. Afterwards there was the strange 
drugged fall of snow. When the sun rose the air 
broke into a thousand prisms as close as the flash- 
and-turn of gulls’ wings. For a long time after- 
wards it was so clear that in the evening the little 
companion-star to Sirius could be seen plainly in 
the heavens by travelers who took their way by 
night, and Venus shone in the daytime in all its 
course through the new transparency of the sky. 

The Mississippi shuddered and lifted from its 
bed, reaching like a somnambulist driven to go in 
new places; the ice stretched far out over the 
waves. Flatboats and rafts continued to float down- 

3 



The Wide Net 


4 

stream, but with unsignalling passengers submis- 
sive and huddled, mere bundles of sticks; bets 
were laid on shore as to whether they were alive 
or dead, but it was impossible to prove it either 
way. 

The coated moss hung in blue and shining gar- 
lands over the trees along the changed streets in 
the morning. The town of little galleries was all 
laden roofs and silence. In the fastness of Natchez 
it began to seem then that the whole world, like 
itself, must be in a transfiguration. The only 
clamor came from the animals that suffered in 
their stalls, or from the wildcats that howled in 
closer rings each night from the frozen cane. The 
Indians could be heard from greater distances and 
in greater numbers than had been guessed, send- 
ing up placating but proud messages to the sun 
in continual ceremonies of dancing. The red per- 
cussion of their fires could be seen night and day 
by those waiting in the dark trance of the frozen 
town. Men were caught by the cold, they dropped 
in its snare-hke silence. Bands of travelers moved 
closer together, with intenser caution, through 
the glassy tunnels of the Trace, for all proportion 
went away, and they followed one another like 
insects going at dawn through the heavy grass. 
Natchez people turned silently to look when a 
solitary man that no one had ever seen before was 
found and carried in through the streets, frozen 



First Love 


5 

the way he had crouched in a hollow tree, gray 
and huddled like a squirrel, with a little bundle 
of goods clasped to him. 

Joel Mayes, a deaf boy twelve years old, saw the 
man brought in and knew it was a dead man, but 
his eyes were for something else, something won- 
derful. He saw the breaths coming out of people’s 
mouths, and his dark face, losing just now a little 
of its softness, showed its secret desire. It was mar- 
velous to him when the infinite designs of speech 
became visible in formations on the air, and he 
watched with awe that changed to tenderness 
whenever people met and passed in the road with 
an exchange of words. He walked alone, slowly 
through the silence, with the sturdy and yet 
dreamlike walk of the orphan, and let his own 
breath out through his lips, pushed it into the 
air, and whatever word it was it took the shape of 
a tower. He was as pleased as if he had had a little 
conversation with someone. At the end of the 
street, where he turned into the Inn, he always 
bent his head and walked faster, as if all frivolity 
were done, for he was boot-boy there. 

He had come to Natchez some time in the sum- 
mer. That was through great worlds of leaves, and 
the whole journey from Virginia had been to him 
a kind of childhood wandering in oblivion. He 
had remained to himself: always to himself at first. 



6 


The Wide Net 


and afterwards too— with the company of Old 
Man McCaleb who took him along when his par- 
ents vanished in the forest, were cut off from him, 
and in spite of his last backward look, dropped 
behind. Arms bent on destination dragged him 
forward through the sharp bushes, and leaves came 
toward his face which he finally put his hands 
out to stop. Now that he was a boot-boy, he had 
thought little, frugally, almost stonily, of that 
long time . . . until lately Old Man McCaleb 
had reappeared at the Inn, bound for no telling 
where, his tangled beard like the beards of old 
men in dreams; and in the act of cleaning his 
boots, which were uncommonly heavy and bur- 
densome with mud, Joel came upon a little part 
of the old adventure, for there it was, dark and 
crusted . . . came back to it, and went over it 
again. . . . 

He rubbed, and remembered the day after his 
parents had left him, the day when it was neces- 
sary to hide from the Indians. Old Man McCaleb, 
his stern face lighting in the most unexpected way, 
had herded them, the whole party alike, into the 
dense cane brake, deep down oflf the Trace— the 
densest part, where it grew as thick and locked 
as some kind of wild teeth. There they crouched, 
and each one of them, man, woman, and child, 
had looked at all the others from a hiding place 
that seemed the least safe of all, watching in an 



First Love 


1 

eager wild instinct for any movement or betrayal. 
Crouched by his bush, Joel had cried; all his un- 
derstanding would desert him suddenly and be- 
cause he could not hear he could not see or touch 
or find a familiar thing in the world. He wept, 
and Old Man McCaleb first felled the excited dog 
with the blunt end of his axe, and then he turned 
a fierce face toward him and lifted the blade in 
the air, in a kind of ecstasy of protecting the si- 
lence they were keeping. Joel had made a sound. 

. . . He gasped and put his mouth quicker than 
thought against the earth. He took the leaves in 
his mouth. ... In that long time of lying mo- 
tionless with the men and women in the cane 
brake he had learned what silence meant to other 
people. Through the danger he had felt acutely, 
even with horror, the nearness of his companions, 
a speechless embrace of which he had had no 
warning, a powerful, crushing unity. The Indians 
had then gone by, followed by an old woman- 
in solemn, single file, careless of the inflaming 
arrows they carried in their quivers, dangling in 
their hands a few strings of catfish. They passed 
in the length of the old woman’s yawn. Then one 
by one McCaleb’s charges had to rise up and come 
out of the hiding place. There was little talking 
together, but a kind of shame and shuffling. As 
soon as the party reached Natchez, their little 
cluster dissolved completely. The old man had 



8 


The Wide Net 


given each of them one long, rather forlorn look 
for a farewell, and had gone away, no less pre- 
occupied than he had ever been. To the man who 
had saved his life Joel lifted the gentle, almost 
indifferent face of the child who has asked for 
nothing. Now he remembered the white gulls fly- 
ing across the sky behind the old man’s head. 

Joel had been deposited at the Inn, and there 
was nowhere else for him to go, for it stood there 
and marked the foot of the long Trace, with the 
river back of it. So he remained. It was a non- 
committal arrangement: he never paid them any- 
thing for his keep, and they never paid him any- 
thing for his work. Yet time passed, and he be- 
came a little part of the place where it passed over 
him. A small private room became his own; it was 
on the ground floor behind the saloon, a dark lit- 
tle room paved with stones with its ceiling rafters 
curved not higher than a man’s head. There was 
a fireplace and one window, which opened on the 
courtyard filled always with the tremor of horses. 
He curled up every night on a highbacked bench, 
when the weather turned cold he was given a col- 
lection of old coats to sleep under, and the room 
was almost excessively his own, as it would have 
been a stray kitten’s that came to the same spot 
every night. He began to keep his candlestick 
carefully polished, he set it in the center of the 
puncheon table, and at night when it was lighted 



First Love 


9 

all the messages o£ love carved into it with a knife 
in Spanish words, with a deep Spanish gouging, 
came out in black relief, for anyone to read who 
came knowing the language. 

Late at night, nearer morning, after the trav- 
elers had all certainly pulled oflE their boots to 
fall into bed, he waked by habit and passed with 
the candle shielded up the stairs and through 
the halls and rooms, and gathered up the boots. 
When he had brought them all down to his table 
he would sit and take his own time cleaning them, 
while the firelight would come gently across the 
paving stones. It seemed then that his whole life 
was safely alighted, in the sleep of everyone else, 
like a bird on a bough, and he was alone in the 
way he liked to be. He did not despise boots at all 
—he had learned boots; under his hand they stood 
up and took a good shape. This was not a slave’s 
work, or a child’s either. It had dignity: it was 
dangerous to walk about among sleeping men. 
More than once he had been seized and the life 
half shaken out of him by a man waking up in a 
sweat of suspicion or nightmare, but he dealt 
nimbly as an animal with the violence and quick 
frenzy of dreamers. It might seem to him that the 
whole world was sleeping in the lightest of trances, 
which the least movement would surely wake; 
but he only walked softly, stepping around and 
over, and got back to his room. Once a rattlesnake 



IG 


The Wide Net 

had shoved its head from a boot as he stretched 
out his hand; but that was not likely to happen 
again in a thousand years. 

It was in his own room, on the night of the first 
snowfall, that a new adventure began for him. 
Very late in the night, toward morning, Joel sat 
bolt upright in bed and opened his eyes to see 
the whole room shining brightly, like a brimming 
lake in the sun. Boots went completely out of his 
head, and he was left motionless. The candle was 
lighted in its stick, the fire was high in the grate, 
and from the window a wild tossing illumination 
came, which he did not even identify at first as the 
falling of snow. Joel was left in the shadow of the 
room, and there before him, in the center of the 
strange multiplied light, were two men in black 
capes sitting at his table. They sat in profile to 
him, tall under the little arch of the rafters, facing 
each other across the good table he used for every- 
thing, and talking together. They were not of 
Natchez, and their names were not in the book. 
Each of them had a white glitter upon his boots— 
it was the snow; their capes were drawn together 
in front, and in the blackness of the folds, snow- 
flakes were just beginning to melt. 

Joel had never been able to hear the knocking 
at a door, and still he knew what that would be; 
and he surmised that these men had never 



knocked even lightly to enter his room. When he 
found that at some moment outside his knowledge 
or consent two men had seemingly fallen from 
the clouds onto the two stools at his table and had 
taken everything over for themselves, he did not 
keep the calm heart with which he had stood and 
regarded all men up to Old Man McCaleb, who 
snored upstairs. 

He did not at once betray the violation that he 
felt. Instead, he simply sat, still bolt upright, and 
looked with the feasting the eyes do in secret— at 
their faces, the one eye of each that he could see, 
the cheeks, the half-hidden mouths— the faces each 
firelit, and strange with a common reminiscence 
or speculation. . . . Perhaps he was saved from 
giving a cry by knowing it could be heard. Then 
the gesture one of the men made in the air trans- 
fixed him where he waited. 

One of the two men lifted his right arm— a 
tense, yet gentle and easy motion— and made the 
dark wet cloak fall back. To Joel it was like the 
first movement he had ever seen, as if the world 
had been up to that night inanimate. It was like 
the signal to open some heavy gate or paddock, 
and it did open to his complete astonishment upon 
a panorama in his own head, about which he knew 
first of all that he would never be able to speak— it 
was nothing but brightness, as full as the bright- 
ness on which he had opened his eyes. Inside his 



i‘> The Wide Net 

room was still another interior, this meeting upon 
which all the light was turned, and within that 
was one more mystery, all that ^vas being said. The 
men’s heads were inclined together against the 
blaze, their hair seemed light and floating. Their 
elbows rested on the boards, stirring the crumbs 
where Joel had eaten his biscuit. He had no idea 
of how long they had stayed when they got up 
and stretched their arms and walked out through 
the door, after blowing the candle out. 

When Joel woke up again at daylight, his first 
thought was of Indians, his next of ghosts, and 
then the vision of what had happened came back 
into his head. He took a light beating for forget- 
ting to clean the boots, but then he forgot the 
beating. He wondered for how long a time the 
men had been meeting in his room while he was 
asleep, and whether they had ever seen him, and 
what they might be going to do to him, whether 
they would take him each by the arm and drag 
him on further, through the leaves. He tried to 
remember everything of the night before, and he 
could, and then of the day before, and he rubbed 
belatedly at a boot in a long and deepening dream. 
His memory could work like the slinging of a 
noose to catch a wild pony. It reached back and 
hung trembling over the very moment of terror 
in which he had become separated from his par- 
ents, and then it turned and started in the oppo- 



First Love 15 

site direction, and it would have discerned some 
shape, but he would not let it, o£ the future. In 
the meanwhile, all day long, everything in the 
passing moment and each little deed assumed the 
gravest importance. He divined every change in 
the house, in the angle of the doors, in the height 
of the fires, and whether the logs had been stirred 
by a boot or had only fallen in an empty room. 
He was seized and possessed by mystery. He waited 
for night. In his own room the candlestick now 
stood on the table covered with the wonder of 
having been touched by unknown hands in his 
absence and seen in his sleep. 

It was while he was cleaning boots again that 
the identity of the men came to him all at once. 
Like part of his meditations, the names came into 
his mind. He ran out into the street with this 
knowledge rocking in his head, remembering then 
the tremor of a great arrival which had shaken 
Natchez, caught fast in the grip of the cold, and 
shaken it through the lethargy of the snow, and 
it was clear now why the floors swayed with run- 
ning feet and unsteady hands shoved him aside at 
the bar. There was no one to inform him that the 
men were Aaron Burr and Harman Blennerhas- 
sett, but he knew. No one had pointed out to him 
any way that he might know which was which, but 
he knew that: it was Burr who had made the ges- 
ture. 



The Wide Net 


H 

They came to his room every night, and indeed 
Joel had not expected that the one visit would be 
the end. It never occurred to him that the first 
meeting did not mark a beginning. It took a little 
time always for the snow to melt from their capes 
—for it continued all this time to snow. Joel sat 
up with his eyes wide open in the shadows and 
looked out like the lone watcher of a conflagra- 
tion. The room grew warm, burning with the heat 
from the little grate, but there was something of 
fire in all that happened. It was from Aaron Burr 
that the flame was springing, and it seemed to pass 
across the table with certain words and through 
the sudden nobleness of the gesture, and touch 
Blennerhassett. Yet the breath of their speech was 
no simple thing like the candle’s gleam between 
them. Joel saw them still only in profile, but he 
could see that the secret was endlessly complex, 
for in two nights it was apparent that it could 
never be all told. All that they said never finished 
their conversation. They would always have to 
meet again. The ring Burr wore caught the fire- 
light repeatedly and started it up again in the 
intricate whirlpool of a signet. Quicker and fuller 
still was his eye, darting its look about, but never 
at Joel. Their eyes had never really seen his room 
. . . the fine polish he had given the candlestick, 
the clean boards from which he had scraped the 
crumbs, the wooden bench where he was himself. 



from which he put outward— just a little, care- 
lessly— his hand. . . . Everything in the room was 
conquest, all was a dream of delights and powers 
beyond its walls. . . . The light-filled hair fell 
over Burr’s sharp forehead, his cheek grew taut, 
his smile was sudden, his lips drove the breath 
through. The other man’s face, with its quiet 
mouth, for he was the listener, changed from ardor 
to gloom and back to ardor. . . .Joel sat still and 
looked from one man to the other. 

At first he believed that he had not been discov- 
ered. Then he knew that they had learned some- 
how of his presence, and that it had not stopped 
them. Somehow that appalled him. . . . They 
were aware that if it were only before him, they 
could talk forever in his room. Then he put it 
that they accepted him. One night, in his first 
realization of this, his defect seemed to him a 
kind of hospitality. A joy came over him, he was 
moved to gaiety, he felt wit stirring in his mind, 
and he came out of his hiding place and took a 
few steps toward them. Finally, it was too much: 
he broke in upon the circle of their talk, and set 
food and drink from the kitchen on the table be- 
tween them. His hands were shaking, and they 
looked at him as if from great distances, but they 
were not surprised, and he could smell the fa- 
miliar black wetness of travelers’ clothes steaming 
up from them in the firelight. Afterwards he sat 



i6 The Wide Net 

on the floor perfectly still, with Burr’s cloak hang- 
ing just beside his own shoulder. At such mo- 
ments he felt a dizziness as if the cape swung him 
about in a great arc of wonder, but Aaron Burr 
turned his full face and looked down at him only 
with gravity, the high margin of his brows lifted 
above tireless eyes. 

There was a kind of dominion promised in his 
gentlest glance. When he first would come and 
throw himself down to talk and the fire would 
flame up and the reflections of the snowy world 
grew bright, even the clumsy table seemed to 
change its substance and to become a part of a 
ceremony. He might have talked in another lan- 
guage, in which there was nothing but evocation. 
When he was seen so plainly, all his movements 
and his looks seemed part of a devotion that was 
curiously patient and had the illusion of wisdom 
all about it. Lights shone in his eyes like travelers’ 
fires seen far out on the river. Always he talked, 
his talking was his appearance, as if there were no 
eyes, nose, or mouth to remember; in his face 
there was every subtlety and eloquence, and no 
features, no kindness, for there was no awareness 
whatever of the present. Looking up from the 
floor at his speaking face, Joel knew all at once 
some secret of temptation and an anguish that 
would reach out after it like a closing hand. He 
would allow Burr to take him with him wherever 
it was that he meant to go. 



First Love 


17 

Sometimes in the nights Joel would feel himself 
surely under their eyes, and think they must have 
come; but that would be a dream, and when he 
sat up on his bench he often saw nothing more 
than the dormant firelight stretched on the empty 
floor, and he would have a strange feeling of hav- 
ing been deserted and lost, not quite like anything 
he had ever felt in his life. It was likely to be 
early dawn before they came. 

When they were there, he sat restored, though 
they paid no more attention to him than they 
paid the presence of the firelight. He brought all 
the food he could manage to give them; he saved 
a little out of his own suppers, and one night he 
stole a turkey pie. He rnight have been their 
safety, for the way he sat up so still and looked at 
them at moments like a father at his playing chil- 
dren. He never for an instant wished for them to 
leave, though he would so long for sleep that he 
would stare at them finally in bewilderment and 
without a single flicker of the eyelid. Often they 
would talk all night. Blennerhassett’s wide vague 
face would grow out of devotion into exhaustion. 
But Burr’s hand would always reach across and 
take him by the shoulder as if to rouse him from a 
dull sleep, and the radiance of his own face would 
heighten always with the passing of time. Joel sat 
quietly, waiting for the full revelation of the meet- 
ings. All his love went out to the talkers. He would 
not have known how to hold it back. 



The Wide Net 


In the idle mornings, in some morning need to 
go looking at the world, he wandered down to the 
Esplanade and stood under the trees which bent 
heavily over his head. He frowned out across the 
ice-covered racetrack and out upon the river. 
There was one hour when the river was the color 
of smoke, as if it were more a thing of the woods 
than an element and a power in itself. It seemed 
to belong to the woods, to be gentle and watched 
over, a tethered and grazing pet of the forest, and 
then when the light spread higher and color 
stained the world, the river would leap suddenly 
out of the shining ice around, into its full-grown 
torrent of life, and its strength and its churning 
passage held Joel watching over it like the spell 
unfolding by night in his room. If he could not 
speak to the river, and he could not, still he would 
try to read in the river’s blue and violet skeins a 
working of the momentous event. It was hard to 
understand. Was any scheme a man had, however 
secret and intact, always broken upon by the very 
current of its working? One day, in anguish, he 
saw a raft torn apart in midstream and the men 
scattered from it. Then all that he felt move in 
his heart at the sight of the inscrutable river went 
out in hope for the two men and their genius that 
he sheltered. 

It was when he returned to the Inn that he was 
given a notice to paste on the saloon mirror say- 
ing that the trial of Aaron Burr for treason would 



First Love 19 

be held at the end of the month at Washington, 
capitol of Mississippi Territory, on the campus 
of Jefferson College, where the crowds might be 
amply accommodated. In the meanwhile, the ar- 
rival of the full, armed flotilla was being awaited, 
and the price of whisky would not be advanced 
in this tavern, but there would be a slight increase 
in the tariff on a bed upstairs, depending on how 
many slept in it. 

The month wore on, and now it was full moon- 
light. Late at night the whole sky was lunar, like 
the surface of the moon brought as close as a 
cheek. The luminous ranges of all the clouds 
stretched one beyond the other in heavenly order. 
They seemed to be the streets where Joel was 
walking through the town. People now lighted 
their houses in entertainments as if they copied 
after the sky, with Burr in the center of them al- 
ways, dancing with the women, talking with the 
men. They followed and formed cotillion figures 
about the one who threatened or lured them, and 
their minuets skimmed across the nights like a 
pebble expertly skipped across water. Joel would 
watch them take sides, and watch the arguments, 
all the frilled motions and the toasts, and he 
thought they were to decide whether Burr was 
good or evil. But all the time, Joel believed, when 
lie saw Burr go dancing by, that did not touch 
him at all. Joel knew his eyes saw nothing there 



20 


The Wide Net 


and went always beyond the room, although usu- 
ally the most beautiful woman there was some- 
how in his arms when the set was over. Sometimes 
they drove him in their carriages down to the 
Esplanade and pointed out the moon to him, to 
end the evening. There they sat showing every- 
thing to Aaron Burr, nodding with a magnificence 
that approached fatigue toward the reaches off the 
ice that stretched over the river like an impossible 
bridge, some extension to the West of the Natchez 
Trace; and a radiance as soft and near as rain fell 
on their hands and faces, and on the plumes of 
the breaths from the horses’ nostrils, and they were 
as gracious and as grand as Burr. 

Each day that drew the trial closer, men talked 
more hotly on the corners and the saloon at the 
Inn shook with debate; every night Burr was in- 
vited to a finer and later ball; and Joel waited. 
He knew that Burr was being allotted, by an al- 
most specific consent, this free and unmolested 
time till dawn, to meet in conspiracy, for the sake 
of continuing and perfecting the secret. This 
knowledge Joel gathered to himself by being, 
himself, everywhere; it decreed his own suffering 
and made it secret and filled with private omens. 

One day he was driven to know everything. It 
was the morning he was given a little fur cap, and 
he set it on his head and started out. He walked 
through the dark trodden snow all the way up the 



21 


First Love 

Trace to the Bayou Pierre. The great trees began 
to break that day. The pounding of their explo- 
sions filled the subdued air; to Joel it was as if a 
great foot had stamped on the ground. And at 
first he thought he saw the fulfillment of all the 
rumor and promise— the flotilla coming around 
the bend, and he did not know whether he felt 
terror or pride. But then he saw that what covered 
the river over was a chain of great perfect trees 
floating down, lying on their sides in postures like 
slain giants and heroes of battle, black cedars and 
stone-white sycamores, magnolias with their leavy 
leaves shining as if they were in bloom, a long pro- 
cession. Then it was terror that he felt. 

He went on. He was not the only one who had 
made the pilgrimage to see what the original flo- 
tilla was like, that had been taken from Burr, 
There were many others: there was Old Man 
McCaleb, at a little distance. ... In care not to 
show any excitement of expectation, Joel made his 
way through successive little groups that seemed 
to meditate there above the encampment of 
militia on the snowy bluff, and looked down at 
the water. 

There was no galley there. There were nine 
small flatboats tied to the shore. They seemed so 
small and delicate that he was shocked and dis- 
tressed, and looked around at the faces of the 
others, who looked coolly back at him. There was 



The Wide Net 


28 

no sign of weapon about the boats or anywhere, 
except in the hands of the men on guard. There 
were barrels of molasses and whisky, rolling and 
knocking each other like drowned men, and 
stowed to one side of one of the boats, in a dark 
place, a strange little collection of blankets, a silver 
bridle with bells, a book swollen with water, and 
a little flute with a narrow ridge of snow along 
it. Where Joel stood looking down upon them, 
the boats floated in clusters of three, as small as 
water-lilies on a still bayou. A canoe filled with 
crazily wrapped-up Indians passed at a little dis- 
tance, and with severe open mouths the Indians 
all laughed. 

But the soldiers were sullen with cold, and very 
grave or angry, and Old Man McCaleb was there 
with his beard flying and his finger pointing 
prophetically in the direction of upstream. Some 
of the soldiers and all the women nodded their 
heads, as though they were the easiest believers, 
and one woman drew her child tightly to her. 
Joel shivered. Two of the young men hanging 
over the edge of the bluff flung their arms in sud- 
den exhilaration about each other’s shoulders, and 
a look of wildness came over their faces. 

Back in the streets of Natchez, Joel met part of 
the militia marching and stood with his heart rac- 
ing, back out of the way of the line coming with 
bright guns tilted up in the sharp air. Behind 



First Love 


23 

them, two of the soldiers dragged along a young 
dandy whose eyes glared at everything. There 
where they held him he was trying over and over 
again to make Aaron Burr’s gesture, and he never 
convinced anybody. 

Joel went in all three times to the militia’s en- 
campment on the Bayou Pierre, the last time on 
the day before the trial was to begin. Then out be- 
yond a willow point a rowboat with one soldier 
in it kept laconic watch upon the north. 

Joel returned on the frozen path to the Inn, 
and stumbled into his room, and waited for Burr 
and Blennerhassett to come and talk together. His 
head ached. . . . All his walking about was no 
use. Where did people learn things? Where did 
they go to find them? How far? 

Burr and Blennerhassett talked across the table, 
and it was growing late on the last night. Then 
there in the doorway with a fiddle in her hand 
stood Blennerhassett’s wife, wearing breeches, 
come to fetch him home. The fiddle she had 
simply picked up in the Inn parlor as she came 
through, and Joel did not think she bothered 
now to speak at all. But she waited there before 
the fire, still a child and so clearly related to her 
husband that their sudden movements at the en- 
counter were alike and made at the same time. 
They stood looking at each other there in the 



The Wide Net 


24 

firelight like creatures balancing together on a 
raft, and then she lifted the bow and began to 
play. 

Joel gazed at the girl, not much older than him- 
self. She leaned her cheek against the fiddle. He 
had never examined a fiddle at all, and when she 
began to play it she frightened and dismayed him 
by her almost insect-like motions, the pensive an- 
tennae of her arms, her mask of a countenance. 
When she played she never blinked her eye. Her 
legs, fantastic in breeches, were separated slightly, 
and from her bent knees she swayed back and 
forth as if she were weaving the tunes with her 
body. The sharp odor of whisky moved with her. 
The slits of her eyes were milky. The songs she 
played seemed to him to have no beginnings and 
no endings, but to be about many hills and val- 
leys, and chains of lakes. She, like the men, knew 
of a place. . . . All of them spoke of a country. 

And quite clearly, and altogether to his sur- 
prise, Joel saw a sight that he had nearly forgot- 
ten. Instead of the fire on the hearth, there was a 
mimosa tree in flower. It was in the little back 
field at his home in Virginia and his mother was 
leading him by the hand. Fragile, delicate, cloud- 
like it rose on its pale trunk and spread its long 
level arms. His mother pointed to it. Among the 
trembling leaves the feathery puffs of sweet bloom 
filled the tree like thousands of paradisical birds 
ail alighted at an instant. He had known then the 



First Love 


25 


story of the Princess Labam, for his mother had 
told it to him, how she was so radiant that she sat 
on the roof-top at night and lighted the city. It 
seemed to be the mimosa tree that lighted the 
garden, for its brightness and fragrance overlaid 
all the rest. Out of its graciousness this tree suf- 
fered their presence and shed its splendor upon 
him and his mother. His mother pointed again, 
and its scent swayed like the Asiatic princess mov- 
ing up and down the pink steps of its branches. 
Then the vision was gone. Aaron Burr sat in front 
of the fire, Blennerhassett faced him, and Blenner- 
hassett’s wife played on the violin. 

There was no compassion in what this woman 
was doing, he knew that— there was only a fright- 
ening thing, a stern allurement. Try as he might, 
he could not comprehend it, though it was so 
calculated. He had instead a sensation of pain, the 
ends of his fingers were stinging. At first he did 
not realize that he had heard the sounds of her 
song, the only thing he had ever heard. Then all 
at once as she held the lifted bow still for a mo- 
ment he gasped for breath at the interruption, 
and he did not care to learn her purpose or to 
wonder any longer, but bent his head and listened 
for the note that she would fling down upon them. 
And it was so gentle then, it touched him tvith 
surprise; it made him think of animals sleeping 
on their cushioned paws. 



26 


The Wide Net 


For a moment his love went like sound into a 
myriad life and was divided among all the people 
in his room. While they listened, Burr’s radiance 
was somehow quenched, or theirs was raised to 
equal it, and they were all alike. There was one 
thing that shone in all their faces, and that was 
how far they were from home, how far from every- 
where that they knew. Joel put his hand to his 
own face, and hid his pity from them while they 
listened to the endless tunes. 

But she ended them. Sleep all at once seemed to 
overcome her whole body. She put down the fiddle 
and took Blennerhassett by both hands. He 
seemed tired too, more tired than talking coxild 
ever make him. He went out when she led him. 
They went wrapped under one cloak, his arm 
about her. 

Burr did not go away immediately. First he 
walked up and down before the fire. He turned 
each time with diminishing violence, and light 
and shadow seemed to stream more softly with his 
turning cloak. Then he stood still. The firelight 
threw its changes over his face. He had no one 
to talk to. His boots smelled of the fire’s close- 
ness. Of course he had forgotten Joel, he seemed 
quite alone. At last with a strange naturalness, al- 
most tvith a limp, he went to the table and 
stretched himself full length upon it. 

He lay on his back. Joel was astonished. That 



First Love 27 

was the way they laid out the men killed in duels 
in the Inn yard; and that was the table they laid 
them on. 

Burr fell asleep instantly, so quickly that Joel 
felt he should never be left alone. He looked at 
the sleeping face of Burr, and the time and the 
place left him, and all that Burr had said that he 
had tried to guess left him too— he knew nothing 
in the world except the sleeping face. It was quiet. 
The eyes were almost closed, only dark slits lay 
beneath the lids. There was a small scar on the 
cheek. The lips were parted. Joel thought, I could 
speak if I would, or I could hear. Once I did each 
thing. . . . Still he listened . . . and it seemed 
that all that would speak, in this world, was listen- 
ing. Burr was silent; he demanded nothing, noth- 
ing. ... A boy or a man could be so alone in his 
heart that he could not even ask a question. In 
such silence as falls over a lonely man there is 
childlike supplication, and all arms might wish to 
open to him, but there is no speech. This was 
Burr’s last night: Joel knew that. This was the 
moment before he would ride away. Why would 
the heart break so at absence? Joel knew that it 
was because nothing had been told. The heart is 
secret even when the moment it dreamed of has 
come, a moment when there might have been a 
revelation. . . . Joel stood motionless; he lifted 
his gaze from Burr’s face and stared at nothing. 



28 


The Wide Net 


... If love does a secret thing always, it is to 
reach backward, to a time that could not be known 
—for it makes a history of the sorrow and the 
dream it has contemplated in some instant of rec- 
ognition. What Joel saw before him he had a ter- 
rible wish to speak out loud, but he would have 
had to find names for the places of the heart and 
the times for its shadowy and tragic events, and 
they seemed of great magnitude, heroic and ter- 
rible and splendid, like the legends of the mind. 
But for lack of a way to tell how much was known, 
the boundaries would lie between him and the 
others, all the others, until he died. 

Presently Burr began to toss his head and to 
cry out. He talked, his face drew into a dreadful 
set of grimaces, which it followed over and over. 
He could never stop talking. Joel was afraid of 
these words, and afraid that eavesdroppers might 
listen to them. Whatever words they were, they 
were being taken by some force out of his dream. 
In horror, Joel put out his hand. He could never 
in his life have laid it across the mouth of Aaron 
Burr, but he thrust it into Burr’s spread-out 
fingers. The fingers closed and did not yield; the 
clasp grew so fierce that it hurt his hand, but he 
saw that the words had stopped. 

As if a silent love had shown him whatever new 
thing he would ever be able to learn, Joel had 
some wisdom in his fingers now which only this 



First Love 29 

long month could have brought. He knew ■with 
what gentleness to hold the burning hand. With 
the gravity of his very soul he received the furious 
pressure of this man’s dream. At last Burr dreiv 
his arm back beside his quiet head, and his hand 
hung like a child’s in sleep, released in oblivion. 

The next morning, Joel was given a notice to 
paste on the saloon mirror that conveyances might 
be rented at the Inn daily for the excursion to 
Washington for the trial of Mr. Burr, payment to 
be made in advance. Joel went out and stood on a 
corner, and joined with a group of young boys 
walking behind the militia. 

It was warm— a “false spring’’ day. The little 
procession from Natchez, decorated and smiling 
in all they owned or whatever they borrowed or 
chartered or rented, moved grandly through the 
streets and on up the Trace. To Joel, somewhere 
in the line, the blue air that seemed to lie between 
the high banks held it all in a mist, softly colored, 
the fringe waving from a carriage top, a few flags 
waving, a sword shining when some gentleman 
made a flourish. High up on their horses a num- 
ber of the men were wearing their Revolutionary 
War uniforms, as if to reiterate that Aaron Burr 
fought once at their sides as a hero. 

Under the spreading live-oaks at Washington, 
the trial opened like a festival. There was a theatre 



The Wide Net 


30 

of benches, and a promenade; stalls were set out 
under the trees and glasses of whisky, and colored 
ribbons, were sold. Joel sat somewhere among the 
crowds. Breezes touched the yellow and violet of 
dresses and stirred them, horses pawed the 
ground, and the people pressed upon him and 
seemed more real than those in dreams, and yet 
their pantomime was like those choruses and com- 
panies whose movements are like the waves run- 
ning together. A hammer was then pounded, there 
was sudden attention from all the spectators, and 
Joel felt the great solidifying of their silence. 

He had dreaded the sight of Burr. He had 
thought there might be some mark or disfigure- 
ment that would come from his panic. But all his 
grace was back upon him, and he was smiling to 
greet the studious faces which regarded him. Be- 
fore their bright facade others rose first, declaim- 
ing men in turn, and then Burr. 

In a moment he was walking up and down with 
his shadow on the grass and the patches of snow. 
He was talking again, talking now in great cour- 
tesy to everybody. There was a flickering light of 
sun and shadow on his face. 

Then Joel understood. Burr was explaining 
away, smoothing over all that he had held great 
enough to have dreaded once. He walked back and 
forth elegantly in the sun, turning his wrist ever 
so airily in its frill, making light of his dream that 



First Love 


31 

had terrified him. And it was the deed they had all 
come to see. All around Joel they gasped, smiled, 
pressed one another’s arms, nodded their heads; 
there were tender smiles on the women’s faces. 
They were at Aaron Burr’s feet at last, learning 
their superiority. They loved him now, in their 
condescension. They leaned forward in delight at 
the parading spectacle he was making. And when 
it was over for the day, they shook each other’s 
hands, and Old Man McCaleb could be seen spit- 
ting on the ground, in the anticipation of another 
day as good as this one. 

Blennerhassett did not come that night. 

Burr came very late. He walked in the door, 
looked down at Joel where he sat among his boots, 
and suddenly stooped and took the dirty cloth out 
of his hand. He put his face quickly into it and 
pressed and rubbed it against his skin. Joel saw 
that all his clothes were dirty and ragged. The last 
thing he did was to set a little cap of turkey feath- 
ers on his head. Then he went out. 

Joel followed him along behind the dark houses 
and through a ravine. Burr turned toward the 
Halfway Hill. Joel turned too, and he saw Burr 
walk slowly up and open the great heavy gate. 

He saw him stop beside a tall camellia bush as 
lolid as a tower and pick up one of the frozen 
buds which were shed all around it on the ground. 



The Wide Net 


32 

For a moment he held it in the palm of his hand, 
and then he went on. Joel, following behind, did 
the same. He held the bud, and studied the burned 
edges of its folds by the pale half-light of the East. 
The bud came apart in his hand, its layers like 
small velvet shells, still iridescent, the shriveled 
flower inside. He held it tenderly and yet timidly, 
in a kind of shame, as though all disaster lay piti- 
fully disclosed now to the eyes. 

He knew the girl Burr had often danced with 
under the rings of tapers when she came out in a 
cloak across the shadowy hill. Burr stood, quiet 
and graceful as he had always been as her partner 
at the balls. Joel felt a pain like a sting while she 
first merged with the dark figure and then drew 
back. The moon, late-risen and waning, came out 
of the clouds. Aaron Burr made the gesture there 
in the distance, toward the West, where the clouds 
hung still and red, and when Joel looked at him 
in the light he saw as she must have seen the ab- 
surdity he was dressed in, the feathers on his head. 
With a curious feeling of revenge upon her, he 
watched her turn, draw smaller within her own 
cape, and go away. 

Burr came walking down the hill, and passed 
close to the camellia bush where Joel was stand- 
ing. He walked stiffly in his mock Indian dress 
with the boot polish on his face. The youngest 
child in Natchez would have known that this was 



First Love 


S3 

a remarkable and wonderful figure that had hu- 
miliated itself by disguise. 

Pausing in an open space, Burr lifted his hand 
once more and a slave led out from the shadows 
a majestic horse with silver trappings shining in 
the light of the moon. Burr mounted from the 
slave’s hand in all the clarity of his true elegance, 
and sat for a moment motionless in the saddle. 
Then he cut his 'ivhip through the air, and rode 
away. 

Joel followed him on foot toward the Liberty 
Road. As he walked through the streets of Natchez 
he felt a strange mourning to know that Burr 
would never come again by that way. If he had 
left in disguise, the thirst that was in his face was 
the same as it had ever been. He had eluded judg- 
ment, that was all he had done, and Joel was glad 
while he still trembled. Joel would never know 
now the true course, or the true outcome of any 
dream: this was all he felt. But he walked on, in 
the frozen path into the wilderness, on and on. He 
did not see how he could ever go back and still be 
the boot-boy at the Inn. 

He did not know how far he had gone on the 
Liberty Road when the posse came riding up be- 
hind and passed him. He walked on. He saw that 
the bodies of the frozen birds had fallen out of the 
trees, and he fell down and wept for his father and 
mother, to whom he had not said goodbye. 



THE WIDE NET 


This Story is For 
John Fraiser Robinson 


''/'LyiLLIAM WALLACE JAMIESON S 
wife Hazel was going to have a baby. But this was 
October, and it was six months away, and she 
acted exactly as though it would be tomorrow. 
When he came in the room she would not speak 
to him, but would look as straight at nothing as 
she could, with her eyes glowing. If he only 
touched her she stuck out her tongue or ran 
around the table. So one night he went out with 
two of the boys down the road and stayed out all 
night. But that was the worst thing yet, because 
when he came home in the early morning Hazel 
had vanished. He went through the house not be- 
lieving his eyes, balancing with both hands out, 
his yellow cowlick rising on end, and then he 
turned the kitchen inside out looking for her, but 
it did no good. Then when he got back to the 


The Wide Net 


35 

front room he saw she had left him a little letter, 
in an envelope. That was doing something behind 
someone’s back. He took out the letter, pushed 
it open, held it out at a distance from his eyes. 
. . . After one look he was scared to read the ex- 
act words, and he crushed the whole thing in his 
hand instantly, but what it had said was that she 
would not put up with him after that and was 
going to the river to drown herself. 

“Drown herself. . . . But she’s in mortal fear 
of the water!’’ 

He ran out front, his face red like the red of the 
picked cotton field he ran over, and down in the 
road he gave a loud shout for Virgil Thomas, who 
was just going in his own house, to come out again. 
He could just see the edge of Virgil, he had al- 
most got in, he had one foot inside the door. 

They met half-way between the farms, under 
the shade-tree. 

“Haven’t you had enough of the night?’’ asked 
Virgil. There they were, their pants all covered 
with dust and dew, and they had had to carry the 
third man home flat between them. 

“I’ve lost Hazel, she’s vanished, she went to 
drown herself.’’ 

“Why, that ain’t like Hazel,” said Virgil. 

William Wallace reached out and shook him. 
“You heard me. Don’t you know we have to drag 
the river?” 



The Wide Net 


36 

“Right this minute?” 

“You ain’t got nothing to do till spring.” 

“Let me go set foot inside the house and speak 
to my mother and tell her a story, and I’ll come 
back.” 

“This will take the wide net,” said William 
Wallace. His eyebrows gathered, and he was talk- 
ing to himself. 

“How come Hazel to go and do that way?” 
asked Virgil as they started out. 

William Wallace said, “I reckon she got lone- 
some.” 

“That don't argue— drown herself for getting 
lonesome. My mother gets lonesome.” 

“Well,” said William Wallace. “It argues for 
Hazel.” 

“How long is it now since you and her was mar- 
ried?” 

“Why, it’s been a year.” 

“It don’t seem that long to me. A year!” 

“It was this time last year. It seems longer,” said 
William Wallace, breaking a stick off a tree in 
surprise. They walked along, kicking at the flow- 
ers on the road’s edge. “I remember the day I 
seen her first, and that seems a long time ago. She 
was coming along the road holding a little frying- 
size chicken from her grandma, under her arm, 
and she had it real quiet. I spoke to her with nice 



The Wide Net 


O ‘T 
0 / 

manners. We knowed each other’s names, being 
bound to, just didn’t know each other to speak to. 
I says, ‘Where are you taking the fryer?’ and she 
says, ‘Mind your manners,’ and I kept on till after 
while she says, ‘If you want to walk me home, take 
littler steps.’ So I didn’t lose time. It was just four 
miles across the field and full of blackberries, and 
from the top of the hill there was Dover below, 
looking sizeable-like and clean, spread out be- 
tween the two churches like that. When tve got 
down, I says to her, ‘What kind of water’s in this 
well?’ and she says, ‘The best water in the world.’ 
So I drew a bucket and took out a dipper and she 
drank and I drank. I didn’t think it was that re- 
markable, but I didn’t tell her.” 

‘‘What happened that night?” asked Virgil. 

‘‘We ate the chicken,” said William Wallace, 
“and it was tender. Of course that wasn’t all they 
had. The night I was trying their table out, it 
sure had good things to eat from one end to the 
other. Her mama and papa sat at the head and 
foot and we was face to face with each other across 
it, with I remember a pat of butter between. They 
had real sweet butter, with a tree drawed down it, 
elegant-like. Her mama eats like a man. I had 
brought her a whole hat-ful of berries and she 
didn’t even pass them to her husband. Hazel, she 
would leap up and take a pitcher of new milk and 
fin up the glasses. I had heard how they couldn’t 



38 The Wide Net 

have a singing at the church without a fight over 
her.” 

“Oh, she’s a pretty girl, all right,” said Virgil. 
“It’s a pity for the ones like her to grow old, and 
get like their mothers.” 

“Another thing will be that her mother will get 
wind of this and come after me,” said William 
Wallace. 

“Her mother will eat you alive,” said Virgil. 

“She’s just been watching her chance,” said Wil- 
liam Wallace. “Why did I think I could stay out 
all night.” 

“Just something come over you.” 

“First it was just a carnival at Carthage, and I 
had to let them guess my weight . . . and after 
that . . .” 

“It was nice to be sitting on your neck in a 
ditch singing,” prompted Virgil, “in the moon- 
light. And playing on the harmonica like you can 

play-” 

“Even if Hazel did sit home knowing I was 
drunk, that wouldn’t kill her,” said William Wal- 
lace. “What she knows ain’t ever killed her yet. 

. . She’s smart, too, for a girl,” he said. 

“She’s a lot smarter than her cousins in Beula,” 
said Virgil. “And especially Edna Earle, that never 
did get to be what you’d call a heavy thinker. 
Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how 



The Wide Net 39 

the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in a 
Coca-Cola sign.” 

“Hazel is smart,” said William Wallace. They 
walked on. “You ought to see her pantry shelf, it 
looks like a hundred jars when you open the door. 
I don’t see how she could turn around and jump 
in the river.” 

“It’s a woman’s trick.” 

“I always behaved before. Till the one night- 
last night.” 

“Yes, but the one night,” said Virgil. “And she 
was waiting to take advantage.” 

“She jumped in the river because she was scared 
to death of the water and that was to make it 
worse,” he said. “She remembered how I used to 
have to pick her up and carry her over the oak- 
log bridge, how she’d shut her eyes and make a 
dead-weight and hold me round the neck, just for 
a little creek. I don’t see how she brought herself 
to jump.” 

“Jumped backwards,” said Virgil. “Didn't 
look.” 

When they turned off, it was still early in the 
pink and green fields. The fumes of morning, 
sweet and bitter, sprang up where they walked. 
The insects ticked softly, their strength in re- 
serve; butterflies chopped the air, going to the 
east, and the birds flew carelessly and sang by fits 



The Wide Net 


40 

and starts, not the way they did in the evening in 
sustained and drowsy songs. 

“It’s a pretty day for sure,’’ said William Wal- 
lace. “It’s a pretty day for it.’’ 

“I don’t see a sign of her ever going along here,’' 
said Virgil. 

“Well,” said William Wallace. “She wouldn’t 
have dropped anything. I never saw a girl to leave 
less signs of where she’s been.” 

“Not even a plum seed,” said Virgil, kicking 
the grass. 

In the grove it was so quiet that once William 
Wallace gave a jump, as if he could almost hear 
a sound of himself wondering where she had gone. 
A descent of energy came down on him in the 
thick of the woods and he ran at a rabbit and 
caught it in his hands. 

“Rabbit . . . Rabbit . . He acted as if he 
wanted to take it off to himself and hold it up and 
talk to it. He laid a palm against its pushing heart. 
“Now . . . There now . . .” 

“Let her go, William Wallace, let her go.’ 
Virgil, chewing on an elderberry whistle he had 
just made, stood at his shoulder: “What do you 
want with a live rabbit?” 

William Wallace squatted down and set the rab- 
bit on the ground but held it under his hand. It 
was a little, old, brown rabbit. It did not try to 
move. “See there?” 



The Wide Net 


41 


“Let her go.” 

“She can go if she wants to, but she don’t want 
to.” 

Gently he lifted his hand. The round eye was 
shining at him sideways in the green gloom. 

“Anybody can freeze a rabbit, that wants to,” 
said Virgil. Suddenly he gave a far-reaching blast 
on the whistle, and the rabbit went in a streak. 
“Was you out catching cotton-tails, or was you out 
catching your wife?” he said, taking the turn to 
the open fields. “I come along to keep you on the 
track.” 

“Who’ll we get, now?” They stood on top of a 
hill and William Wallace looked critically over 
the countryside. “Any of the Malones?” 

“I was always scared of the Malones,” said 
Virgil. “Too many of them.” 

“This is my day with the net, and they would 
have to watch out,” said William Wallace. “I 
reckon some Malones, and the Doyles, will be 
enough. The six Doyles and their dogs, and you 
and me, and two little nigger boys is enough, with 
just a few Malones.” 

“That ought to be enough,” said Virgil, “no 
matter what.” 

“I’ll bring the Malones, and you bring the 
Doyles,” said William Wallace, and they separated 
at the spring. 



42 


The Wide Net 


When William Wallace came back, with a 
string of Malones just showing behind him on the 
hilltop, he found Virgil with the two little Rippen 
boys waiting behind him, solemn little towheads. 
As soon as he walked up, Grady, the one in front, 
lifted his hand to signal silence and caution to his 
brother Brucie who began panting merrily and 
untrustworthily behind him. 

Brucie bent readily under William Wallace’s 
hand-pat, and gave him a dreamy look out of the 
tops of his round eyes, which were pure green-and- 
white like clover tops. William Wallace gave him 
a nickel. Grady hung his head; his white hair lay 
in a little tail in the nape of his neck. 

“Let’s let them come,” said Virgil. 

“Well, they can come then, but if we keep let- 
ting everybody come it is going to be too many,” 
said William Wallace. 

“They’ll appreciate it, those little-old boys,” 
said Virgil. Brucie held up at arm’s length a long 
red thread with a bent pin tied on the end; and a 
look of helpless and intense interest gathered 
Grady’s face like a drawstring— his eyes, one bright 
with a sty, shone pleadingly under his white bangs, 
and he snapped his jaw and tried to speak. . . . 
“Their papa was drowned in the Pearl River,” 
said Virgil. 

There was a shout from the gully. 

“Here come all the Malones,” cried William 



The Wide Net 45 

Wallace. “I asked four of them would they come, 
but the rest of the family invited themselves.” 

“Did you ever see a time when they didn’t,” said 
Virgil. “And yonder from the other direction 
comes the Doyles, still with biscuit crumbs on 
their cheeks, I bet, now it’s nothing to do but eat 
as their mother said.” 

“If two little niggers would come along now, 
or one big nigger,” said William Wallace. And 
the words were hardly out of his mouth when two 
little Negro boys came along, going somewhere, 
one behind the other, stepping high and gay in 
their overalls, as though they waded in honeydew 
to the waist. 

“Come here, boys. What’s your names?” 

“Sam and Robbie Bell.” 

“Come along with us, we’re going to drag the 
river.” 

“You hear that, Robbie Bell?” said Sam. 

They smiled. 

The Doyles came noiselessly, their dogs made 
all the fuss. The Malones, eight giants with great 
long black eyelashes, were already stamping the 
ground and pawing each other, ready to go. Every- 
body went up together to see Doc. 

Old Doc owned the wide net. He had a house 
on top of the hill and he sat and looked out from 
a rocker on the front porch. 



44 


The Wide Net 


“Climb the hill and come in!” he began to in- 
tone across the valley. “Harvest’s over . . . 
slipped up on everybody . . . cotton’s picked, 
gone to the gin . . . hay cut . . . molasses made 
around here. . . . Big explosion’s over, super- 
visors elected, some pleased, some not. . . . 
We’re hearing talk of war!” 

When they got closer, he was saying, “Many’s 
been saved at revival, twenty-two last Sunday in- 
cluding a Doyle, ought to counted two. Hope 
they’ll be a blessing to Dover community besides 
a shining star in Heaven. Now what?” he asked, 
for they had arrived and stood gathered in front 
of the steps. 

“If nobody is using your wide net, could we 
use it?” asked William Wallace. 

“You just used it a month ago,” said Doc. “It 
ain’t your turn.” 

Virgil jogged William Wallace’s arm and 
cleared his throat. “This time is kind of special,” 
he said. “We got reason to think William Wal- 
lace’s wife Hazel is in the river, drowned.” 

"What reason have you got to think she’s in the 
river drowned?” asked Doc. He took out his old 
pipe. “I’m asking the husband.” 

“Because she’s not in the house,” said William 
Wallace. 

“Vanished?” and he knocked out the pipe. 

“Plum vanished.” 



The Wide Net 


45 

“Of course a thousand things could have hap- 
pened to her,” said Doc, and he lighted the pipe. 

“Hand him up the letter, William Wallace,” 
said Virgil. “We can’t wait around till Doomsday 
for the net while Doc sits back thinkin’.” 

“I tore it up, right at the first,” said William 
Wallace. “But I know it by heart. It said she was 
going to jump straight in the Pearl River and that 
I’d be sorry.” 

“Where do you come in, Virgil?” asked Doc. 

“I was in the same place William Wallace sat 
on his neck in, all night, and done as much as he 
done, and come home the same time.” 

“You-all were out cuttin’ up, so Lady Hazel has 
to jump in the river, is that it? Cause and effect? 
Anybody want to argue with me? Where do these 
others come in, Doyles, Malones, and what not?” 

“Doc is the smartest man around,” said Wil- 
liam Wallace, turning to the solidly waiting 
Doyles, “but it sure takes time.” 

“These are the ones that’s collected to drag the 
river for her,” said Virgil. 

“Of course I am not going on record to say so 
soon that I think she’s drowned,” Doc said, blow- 
ing out blue smoke. 

“Do you think . . William Wallace 

mounted a step, and his hands both went into 
fists. “Do you think she was carried offf” 



The Wide Net 


46 

“Now that’s the way to argue, see it from all 
sides,” said Doc promptly. “But who by?” 

Some Malone whistled, but not so you could 
tell which one. 

“There’s no booger around the Dover section 
that goes around carrying off young girls that’s 
married,” stated Doc. 

“She was always scared of the Gypsies.” Wil- 
liam Wallace turned scarlet. “She’d sure turn her 
ring around on her finger if she passed one, and 
look in the other direction so they couldn’t see 
she was pretty and carry her off. They come in the 
end of summer.” 

“Yes, there are the Gypsies, kidnappers since 
the world began. But was it to be you that would 
pay the grand ransom?” asked Doc. He pointed 
his finger. They all laughed then at how clever old 
Doc was and clapped William Wallace on the 
back. But that turned into a scuffle and they fell 
to the ground. 

“Stop it, or you can’t have the net,” said Doc. 
“You’re scaring my wife’s chickens.” 

“It’s time we was gone,” said William Wallace. 

The big barking dogs jumped to lean their 
front paws on the men’s chests. 

“My advice remains. Let well enough alone,” 
said Doc. “Whatever this mysterious event will 
turn out to be, it has kept one woman from talk- 
ing a while. However, Lady Hazel is the prettiest 



The Wide Net 47 

girl in Mississippi, you’ve never seen a prettier 
one and you never will. A golden-haired girl.” 
He got to his feet with the nimbleness that was 
always his surprise, and said, “I’ll come along with 
you.” 

The path they always followed was the Old 
Natchez Trace. It took them through the deep 
woods and led them out down below on the 
Pearl River, where they could begin dragging it 
upstream to a point near Dover. They walked in 
silence around William Wallace, not letting him 
carry anything, but the net dragged heavily and 
the buckets were full of clatter in a place so dim 
and still. 

Once they went through a forest of cucumber 
trees and came up on a high ridge. Grady and 
Brucie who were running ahead all the way 
stopped in their tracks; a whistle had blown and 
far down and far away a long freight train was 
passing. It seemed like a little festival procession, 
moving with the slowness of ignorance or a dream, 
from distance to distance, the tiny pink and gray 
cars like secret boxes. Grady was counting the cars 
to himself, as if he could certainly see each one 
clearly, and Brucie watched his lips, hushed and 
cautious, the way he would watch a bird drinking. 
Tears suddenly came to Grady’s eyes, but it could 
only be because a tiny man walked along the top 



48 The Wide Net 

of the train, walking and moving on top of the 
moving train. 

They went down again and soon the smell of 
the river spread over the woods, cool and secret. 
Every step they took among the great walls of 
vines and among the passion-flowers started up a 
little life, a little flight. 

“We’re walking along in the changing-time,” 
said Doc. “Any day now the change will come. It’s 
going to turn from hot to cold, and we can kill 
the hog that’s ripe and have fresh meat to eat. 
Come one of these nights and we can wander 
down here and tree a nice possum. Old Jack Frost 
will be pinching things up. Old Mr. Winter will 
be standing in the door. Hickory tree there will be 
yellow. Sweet-gum red, hickory yellow, dogwood 
red, sycamore yellow.” He went along rapping the 
tree trunks with his knuckle. “Magnolia and live- 
oak never die. Remember that. Persimmons will 
all get fit to eat, and the nuts will be dropping like 
rain all through the woods here. And run, little 
quail, run, for we’ll be after you too.” 

They went on and suddenly the woods opened 
upon light, and they had reached the river. Every- 
one stopped, but Doc talked on ahead as though 
nothing had happened. “Only today,” he said, “to- 
day, in October sun, it’s all gold— sky and tree and 
water. Everything just before it changes looks to 
be made of gold.” 



The Wide Net 49 

William Wallace looked down, as though he 
thought of Hazel with the shining eyes, sitting at 
home and looking straight before her, like a piece 
of pure gold, too precious to touch. 

Below them the river was glimmering, narrow, 
soft, and skin-colored, and slowed nearly to still- 
ness. The shining willow trees hung round them. 
The net that was being drawn out, so old and so 
long-used, it too looked golden, strung and tied 
with golden threads. 

Standing still on the bank, all of a sudden Wil- 
liam Wallace, on whose word they were waiting, 
spoke up in a voice of surprise. “"iAdiat is the name 
of this river?” 

They looked at him as if he were crazy not to 
know the name of the river he had fished in all his 
life. But a deep frown was on his forehead, as if 
he were compelled to wonder what people had 
come to call this river, or to think there was a 
mystery in the name of a river they all knew so 
well, the same as if it were some great far torrent 
of waves that dashed through the mountains some- 
where, and almost as if it were a river in some 
dream, for they could not give him the name of 
that. 

‘‘Everybody knows Pearl River is named the 
Pearl River,” said Doc. 

A bird note suddenly bold was like a stone 
thrown into the water to sound it. 



50 The Wide Net 

“It’s deep here,” said Virgil, and jogged Wil- 
liam Wallace. “Remember?” 

William Wallace stood looking down at the 
river as if it were still a mystery to him. There 
under his feet which hung over the bank it was 
transparent and yellow like an old bottle lying in 
the sun, filling with light. 

Doc clattered all his paraphernalia. 

Then all of a sudden all the Malones scattered 
jumping and tumbling down the bank. They gave 
their loud shout. Little Brucie started after them, 
and looked back. 

“Do you think she jumped?” Virgil asked Wil- 
liam Wallace. 


II 

Since the net was so wide, when it was all 
stretched it reached from bank to bank of the 
Pearl River, and the weights would hold it all 
the way to the bottom. Jug-like sounds filled the 
air, splashes lifted in the sun, and the party began 
to move upstream. The Malones with great groans 
swam and pulled near the shore, the Doyles swam 
and pushed from behind with Virgil to tell them 
how to do it best; Grady and Brucie with his 
thread and pin trotted along the sandbars hauling 
buckets and lines. Sam and Robbie Bell, naked 
and bright- guided the old oarless rowboat that 



51 


The Wide Net 

always drifted at the shore, and in it, sitting up 
tall with his hat on, was Doc— he went along with- 
out ever touching water and without ever taking 
his eyes off the net. William Wallace himself did 
everything but most of the time he was out of 
sight, swimming about under water or diving, and 
he had nothing to say any more. 

The dogs chased up and down, in and out of 
the water, and in and out of the woods. 

“Don’t let her get too heavy, boys,” Doc in- 
toned regularly, every few minutes, “and she 
won’t let nothing through.” 

“She won’t let nothing through, she won’t let 
nothing through,” chanted Sam and Robbie Bell, 
one at his front and one at his back. 

The sandbars were pink or violet drifts ahead. 
Where the light fell on the river, in a wandering 
from shore to shore, it was leaf-shaped spangles 
that trembled softly, while the dark of the river 
was calm. The willow trees leaned overhead under 
muscadine vines, and their trailing leaves hung 
like waterfalls in the morning air. The thing that 
seemed like silence must have been the endless cry 
of all the crickets and locusts in the world, rising 
and falling. 

Every time William Wallace took hold of a big 
eel that slipped the net, the Malones all yelled, 
“Rassle with him, son!” 



52 


The Wide Net 


“Don’t let her get too heavy, boys,” said Doc. 

“This is hard on catfish,” William Wallace saia 
once. 

There were big and little fishes, dark and 
bright, that they caught, good ones and bad ones, 
the same old fish. 

“This is more shoes than I ever saw got to- 
gether in any store,” said Virgil when they emp- 
tied the net to the bottom. “Get going!” he 
shouted in the next breath. 

The little Rippens who had stayed ahead in the 
woods stayed ahead on the river. Brucie, leading 
them all, made small jumps and hops as he went, 
sometimes on one foot, sometimes on the other. 

The winding river looked old sometimes, tvheii 
it ran wrinkled and deep under high banks where 
the roots of trees hung down, and sometimes it 
seemed to be only a young creek, shining with the 
colors of wildflowers. Sometimes sandbars in the 
shapes of fishes lay nose to nose across, without the 
track of even a bird. 

“Here comes some alligators.” said Virgil. 
“Let’s let them by.” 

They drew out on the shady side of the water, 
and three big alligators and four middle-sized 
ones went by, taking their own time. 

“Look at their great big old teeth!” called a 
shrill voice. It was Grady making his only outcry. 



The Wide Net 53 

and the alligators were not showing their teeth 
at all. 

“The better to eat folks with,” said Doc from 
his boat, looking at him severely. 

“Doc, you are bound to declare all you know,” 
said Virgil. “Get going!” 

When they started off again the first thing they 
caught in the net was the baby alligator. 

“That’s just what we wanted!” cried the Ma- 
lones. 

They set the little alligator down on a sandbar 
and he squatted perfectly still; they could hardly 
tell when it was he started to move. They watched 
with set faces his incredible mechanics, while the 
dogs after one bark stood off in inquisitive humil- 
ity, until he winked. 

“He’s ours!” shouted all the Malones. “We’re 
taking him home with us!” 

“He ain’t nothing but a little-old baby,” said 
William Wallace. 

The Malones only scoffed, as if he might be 
only a baby but he looked like the oldest and 
worst lizard. 

“What are you going to do with him?” asked 
Virgil. 

“Keep him.” 

“I’d be more careful what I took out of this 
net,” said Doc. 

“Tie him up and throw him in the bucket,” the 



The Wide Net 


54 

Malones were saying to each other, while Doc was 
saying, “Don’t come running to me and ask me 
what to do when he gets big.” 

They kept catching more and more fish, as if 
there was no end in sight. 

“Look, a string of lady’s beads,” said Virgil. 
“Here, Sam and Robbie Bell.” 

Sam wore them around his head, with a knot 
over his forehead and loops around his ears, and 
Robbie Bell walked behind and stared at them. 

In a shadowy place something white flew up. It 
was a heron, and it went away over the dark tree- 
tops. William Wallace followed it with his eyes 
and Brucie clapped his hands, but Virgil gave a 
sigh, as if he knew that when you go looking for 
what is lost, everything is a sign. 

An eel slid out of the net. 

“Rassle with him, son!” yelled the Malones. 
They swam like fiends. 

“The Malones are in it for the fish,” said Virgil. 

It was about noon that there was a little rustle 
on the bank. 

“Who is that yonder?” asked Virgil, and he 
pointed to a little undersized man with short legs 
and a little straw hat with a band around it, who 
was following along on the other side of the river. 

“Never saw him and don’t know his brother,” 
said Doc. 



55 


The Wide Net 

Nobody had ever seen him before. 

“Who invited you?” cried Virgil hotly. “Hi 
. . . !” and he made signs for the little undersized 
man to look at him, but he would not. 

“Looks like a crazy man, from here,” said the 
Malones. 

“Just don’t pay any attention to him and may- 
be he’ll go away,” advised Doc. 

But Virgil had already swum across and was up 
on the other bank. He and the stranger could be 
seen exchanging a word apiece and then Virgil 
put out his hand the way he would pat a child 
and patted the stranger to the ground. The little 
man got up again just as quickly, lifted his shoul- 
ders, turned around, and walked away with his 
hat tilted over his eyes. 

When Virgil came back he said, “Little-old man 
claimed he was harmless as a baby. I told him to 
just try horning in on this river and anything 
m It. 

“What did he look like up close?” asked Doc. 

“I wasn’t studying how he looked,” said Virgil. 
“But I don’t like anybody to come looking at me 
that I am not familiar with.” And he shouted, 
“Get going!” 

“Things are moving in too great a rush,” said 
Doc. 

Brucie darted ahead and ran looking into all 



56 The Wide Net 

the bushes, lifting up their branches and looking 
underneath. 

“Not one of the Doyles has spoke a woird,” said 
Virgil. 

“That’s because they’re not talkers,” said Doc. 

All day William Wallace kept diving to the bot- 
tom. Once he dived down and down into the dark 
water, where it was so still that nothing stirred, 
not even a fish, and so dark that it was no longer 
the muddy world of the upper river but the dark 
clear world of deepness, and he must have be- 
lieved this was the deepest place in the whole 
Pearl River, and if she was not here she would 
not be anywhere. He was gone such a long time 
that the others stared hard at the surface of the 
water, through which the bubbles came from be- 
low. So far down and all alone, had he found 
Hazel? Had he suspected down there, like some 
secret, the real, the true trouble that Hazel had 
fallen into, about which words in a letter could 
not speak . . . how (who knew?) she had been 
filled to the brim with that elation that they all 
remembered, like their own secret, the elation that 
comes of great hopes and changes, sometimes 
simply of the harvest time, that comes with a lit- 
tle course of its own like a tune to run in the 
head, and there was nothing she could do about it 
—they knew— and so it had turned into this? It 
could be nothing but the old trouble that Wil- 



The Wide Net 


57 

liam Wallace was finding out, reaching and turn- 
ing in the gloom of such depths. 

“Look down yonder,” said Grady softly to 
Brucie. 

He pointed to the surface, where their reflec- 
tions lay colorless and still side by side. He 
touched his brother gently as though to impress 
him. 

“That’s you and me,” he said. 

Brucie swayed precariously over the edge, and 
Grady caught him by the seat of his overalls. 
Brucie looked, but showed no recognition. In- 
stead, he backed away, and seemed all at once un- 
concerned and spiritless, and pressed the nickel 
William Wallace had given him into his palm, 
rubbing it into his skin. Grady’s inflamed eyes 
rested on the brown water. Without warning he 
saw something . . . perhaps the image in the river 
seemed to be his father, the drowned man— with 
arms open, eyes open, mouth open. . . . Grady 
stared and blinked, again something wrinkled up 
his face. 

And when William Wallace came up it was in 
an agony from submersion, which seemed an 
agony of the blood and of the very heart, so woe- 
ful he looked. He was staring and glaring around 
in astonishment, as if a long time had gone by, 
away from the pale world where the brown light 



The Wide Net 


58 

of the sun and the river and the little party watch- 
ing him trembled before his eyes. 

“What did you bring up?’’ somebody called— 
was it Virgil? 

One of his hands was holding fast to a little 
green ribbon of plant, root and all. He was sur- 
prised, and let it go. 

It was afternoon. The trees spread softly, the 
clouds hung wet and tinted. A buzzard turned a 
few slow wheels in the sky, and drifted upwards. 
The dogs promenaded the banks. 

“It’s time we ate fish,” said Virgil. 

On a wide sandbar on which seashells lay they 
dragged up the haul and built a fire. 

Then for a long time among clouds of odors 
and smoke, all half-naked except Doc, they cooked 
and ate catfish. They ate until the Malones 
groaned and all the Doyles stretched out on their 
faces, though for long after, Sam and Robbie Bell 
sat up to their own little table on a cypress stump 
and ate on and on. Then they all were silent and 
still, and one by one fell asleep. 

“There ain’t a thing better than fish,” muttered 
William Wallace. He lay stretched on his back in 
the glimmer and shade of trampled sand. His sun- 
burned forehead and cheeks seemed to glow with 
fire. His eyelids fell. The shadow of a willow 



The Wide Net 5g 

branch dipped and moved over him. “There is 
nothing in the world as good as . . . fish. The 
fish of Pearl River.” Then slowly he smiled. He 
was asleep. 

But it seemed almost at once that he was leap- 
ing up, and one by one up sat the others in their 
ring and looked at him, for it was impossible to 
stop and sleep by the river. 

“You’re feeling as good as you felt last night,” 
said Virgil, setting his head on one side. 

“The excursion is the same when you go look- 
ing for your sorrow as when you go looking for 
your joy,” said Doc. 

But William Wallace answered none of them 
anything, for he was leaping all over the place and 
all, over them and the feast and the bones of the 
feast, trampling the sand, up and down, and do- 
ing a dance so crazy that he would die next. He 
took a big catfish and hooked it to his belt buckle 
and went up and down so that they all hollered, 
and the tears of laughter streaming down his 
cheeks made him put his hand up, and the two 
days’ growth of beard began to jump out, bright 
red. 

But all of a sudden there was an even louder 
cry, something almost like a cheer, from every- 
body at once, and all pointed fingers moved from 
William Wallace to the river. In the center of 
three light-gold rings across the water was lifted 



The Wide Net 


6o 

first an old hoary head (“It has whiskers!” a voice 
cried) and then in an undulation loop after loop 
and hump after hump of a long dark body, until 
there were a dozen rings of ripples, one behind 
the other, stretching all across the river, like a 
necklace. 

“The King of the Snakes!” cried all the Ma- 
lones at once, in high tenor voices and leaning 
together. 

“The King of the Snakes,” intoned old Doc in 
his profound base. 

“He looked you in the eye.” 

William Wallace stared back at the King of the 
Snakes with all his might. 

It was Brucie that darted forward, dangling his 
little thread with the pin tied to it, going toward 
the water. 

“That’s the King of the Snakes!” cried Grady, 
who always looked after him. 

Then the snake went down. 

The little boy stopped with one leg in the air, 
spun around on the other, and sank to the ground. 

“Git up,” Grady whispered. “It was just the 
King of the Snakes. He went off whistling. Git up. 
It wasn’t a thing but the King of the Snakes.” 

Brucie’s green eyes opened, his tongue darted 
out, and he sprang up; his feet were heavy, his 
head light, and he rose like a bubble coming to 
the surface. 



The Wide Net 6i 

Then thunder like a stone loosened and rolled 
down the bank. 

They all stood unwilling on the sandbar, hold- 
ing to the net. In the eastern sky were the familiar 
castles and the round towers to which they were 
used, gray, pink, and blue, growing darker and 
filling with thunder. Lightning flickered in the 
sun along their thick walls. But in the west the 
sun shone with such a violence that in an illumi- 
nation like a long-prolonged glare of lightning the 
heavens looked black and white; all color left the 
world, the goldenness of everything was like a 
memory, and only heat, a kind of glamor and op- 
pression, lay on their heads. The thick heavy trees 
on the other side of the river were brushed with 
mile-long streaks of silver, and a wind touched 
each man on the forehead. At the same time there 
was a long roll of thunder that began behind 
them, came up and down mountains and valleys 
of air, passed over their heads, and left them 
listening still. With a small, near noise a mocking- 
bird followed it, the little white bars of its body 
flashing over the willow trees. 

“We are here for a storm now,'’ Virgil said. 
“We will have to stay till it’s over.” 

They retreated a little, and hard drops fell in 
the leathery leaves at their shoulders and about 
their heads. 



62 The Wide Net 

“Magnolia’s the loudest tree there is in a 
storm,” said Doc. 

Then the light changed the water, until all 
about them the woods in the rising wind seemed 
to grow taller and blow inward together and sud- 
denly turn dark. The rain struck heavily. A huge 
tail seemed to lash through the air and the river 
broke in a wound of silver. In silence the party 
crouched and stooped beside the trunk of the great 
tree, which in the push of the storm rose full of a 
fragrance and unyielding weight. Where they all 
stared, past their tree, was another tree, and be- 
yond that another and another, all the way down 
the bank of the river, all towering and darkened 
in the storm. 

“The outside world is full of endurance,” said 
Doc. “Full of endurance.” 

Robbie Bell and Sam squatted down low and 
embraced each other from the start. 

“Runs in our family to get struck by lightnin’,” 
said Robbie Bell. “Lightnin’ drawed a pitchfork 
right on our grandpappy’s cheek, stayed till he 
died. Pappy got struck by some bolts of lightnin’ 
and was dead three days, dead as that-there axe.” 

There was a succession of glares and crashes. 

“This’n’s goin’ to be either me or you,” said 
Sam. “Here come a little bug. If he go to the left, 
be me, and to the right, be you.” 

But at the next flare a big tree on the hill 



The Wide Net 63 

seemed to turn into fire before their eyes, every 
branch, twig, and leaf, and a purple cloud hung 
over it. 

“Did you hear that crack’” asked Robbie Bell, 
“That were its bones.” 

“Why do you little niggers talk so much!” said 
Doc. “Nobody’s profiting by this information.” 

“We always talks this much,” said Sam, “but 
now everybody so quiet, they hears us.” 

The great tree, split and on fire, fell roaring to 
earth. Just at its moment of falling, a tree like it 
on the opposite bank split wide open and fell in 
two parts. 

“Hope they ain’t goin’ to be no balls of fire 
come rollin’ over the water and fry all the fishes 
with they scales on,” said Robbie Bell. 

The water in the river had turned purple and 
was filled with sudden currents and whirlpools. 
The little willow trees bent almost to its surface, 
bowing one after another down the bank and al- 
most breaking under the storm. A great curtain of 
wet leaves was borne along before a blast of wind, 
and every human being was covered. 

“Now us got scales,” wailed Sam. “Us is the 
fishes.” 

“Hush up, little-old colored children,” said 
Virgil. “This isn’t the way to act when somebody 
takes you out to drag a river.” 



64 The Wide Net 

“Poor lady’s-ghost, I bet it is scareder than us,” 
said Sam. 

“All I hoping is, us don’t find her!” screamed 
Robbie Bell. 

William Wallace bent down and knocked their 
heads together. After that they clung silently in 
each other’s arms, the two black heads resting, 
with wind-filled cheeks and tight-closed eyes, one 
upon the other until the storm was over. 

“Right over yonder is Dover,” said Virgil. 
“We’ve come all the way. William Wallace, you 
have walked on a sharp rock and cut your foot 
open.” 


in 

In Dover it had rained, and the town looked 
somehow like new. The wavy heat of late after- 
noon came down from the watertank and fell over 
everything like shiny mosquito-netting. At the 
wide place where the road was paved and patched 
with tar, it seemed newly embedded with Coca- 
Cola tops. The old circus posters on the store were 
nearly gone, only bits, the snowflakes of white 
horses, clinging to its side. Morning-glory vines 
started almost visibly to grow over the roofs and 
cling round the ties of the railroad track, where 
bluejays lighted on the rails, and umbrella china- 
berry trees hung heavily over the whole town, 
dripping intermittently upon the tin roofs. 



The Wide Nel 65 

Each with his counted fish on a string the mem- 
bers of the river-dragging party walked through 
the town. They went toward the town well, and 
there was Hazel s mother’s house, but no sign of 
her yet coming out. They all drank a dipper of 
the water, and still there was not a soul on the 
street. Even the bench in front of the store was 
empty, except for a little corn-shuck doll. 

But something told them somebody had come, 
for after one moment people began to look out of 
the store and out of the postoffice. All the bird 
dogs woke up to see the Doyle dogs and such a 
large number of men and boys materialize sud- 
denly with such a big catch of fish, and they ran 
out barking. The Doyle dogs joyously barked 
back. The bluejays flashed up and screeched above 
the town, whipping through their tunnels in the 
chinaberry trees. In the cafe a nickel clattered in- 
side a music box and a love song began to play. 
The whole town of Dover began to throb in its 
wood and tin, like an old tired heart, when the 
men walked through once more, coming around 
again and going down the street carrying the fish, 
so drenched, exhausted, and muddy that no one 
could help but admire them. 

William Wallace walked through the town as 
though he did not see anybody or hear anything. 
Yet he carried his great string of fish held high 
where it could be seen by all. Virgil came next. 



66 The Wide Net 

imitating William Wallace exactly, then the mod- 
est Doyles crowded by the Malones, who were 
holding up their alligator, tossing it in the air, 
even, like a father tossing his child. Following 
behind and pointing authoritatively at the ones 
in front strolled Doc, with Sam and Robbie Bell 
still chanting in his wake. In and out of the whole 
little line Grady and Brucie jerked about. Grady, 
with his head ducked, and stiff as a rod, walked 
with a springy limp; it made him look for- 
ever angry and unapproachable. Under his 
breath he was whispering, “Sty, sty, git out of my 
eye, and git on somebody passin’ by.” He traveled 
on with narrowed shoulders, and kept his eye un- 
erringly upon his little brother, wary and at the 
same time proud, as though he held a flying June- 
bug on a string. Brucie, making a twanging noise 
with his lips, had shot forth again, and he was 
darting rapidly everywhere at once, delighted and 
tantalized, running in circles around William 
Wallace, pointing to his fish. A frown of pleasure 
like the print of a bird’s foot was stamped between 
his faint brows, and he trotted in some unknown 
realm of delight. 

“Did you ever see so many fish?” said the peo- 
ple in Dover. 

“How much are your fish, mister?” 

“Would you sell your fish?” 

“Is that all the fish in Pearl River?” 



The Wide Net 67 

“How much you sell them all for? Every- 
body’s?” 

“Three dollars,” said William Wallace sud- 
denly, and loud. 

The Malones were upon him and shouting, but 
it was too late. 

And just as William Wallace was taking the 
money in his hand. Hazel’s mother walked solidly 
out of her front door and saw it. 

“You can’t head her mother off,” said Virgil. 
“Here she comes in full bloom.” 

But William Wallace turned his back on her, 
that was all, and on everybody, for that matter, 
and that was the breaking-up of the party. 

Just as the sun went down. Doc climbed his 
back steps, sat in his chair on the back porch 
where he sat in the evenings, and lighted his pipe. 
William Wallace hung out the net and came back 
and Virgil was waiting for him, so they could say 
good evening to Doc. 

“All in all,” said Doc, when they came up, “I’ve 
never been on a better river-dragging, or seen bet- 
ter behavior. If it took catching catfish to move 
the Rock of Gibraltar, I believe this outfit could 
move it.” 

“Well, we didn’t catch Hazel,” said Virgil. 

“What did you say?” asked Doc. 



68 


The Wide Net 


“He don’t really pay attention,” said Virgil. “I 
said, ‘We didn’t catch Hazel.’ ” 

“Who says Hazel was to be caught?” asked Doc. 
"She wasn’t in there. Girls don’t like the water— 
remember that. Girls don’t just haul off and go 
jumping in the river to get back at their hus- 
bands. They got other ways.” 

“Didn’t you ever think she was in there?” asked 
William Wallace. “The whole time?” 

“Nary once,” said Doc. 

“He’s just smart,” said Virgil, putting his hand 
on William Wallace’s arm. “It’s only because we 
didn’t find her that he wasn’t looking for her.” 

“I’m beholden to you for the net, anyway,” said 
William Wallace. 

“You’re welcome to borry it again,” said Doc. 

On the way home Virgil kept saying, “Calm 
down, calm down, William Wallace.” 

“If he wasn’t such an old skinny man I’d have 
wrung his neck for him,” said William Wallace. 
“He had no business coming.” 

“He’s too big for his britches,” said Virgil. 
“Don’t nobody know everything. And just be- 
cause it’s his net. Why does it have to be his net?” 

“If it wasn’t for being polite to old men. I’d 
have skinned him alive,” said William Wallace. 

“I guess he don’t really know nothing about 
wives at all, his wife’s so deaf,” said Virgil. 



The Wide Net 69 

“He don’t know Hazel,” said William Wallace. 
“I’m the only man alive knows Hazel: would she 
jump in the river or not, and I say she would. 
She jumped in because I was sitting on the back 
of my neck in a ditch singing, and that’s just what 
she ought to done. Doc ain’t got no right to say 
one word about it.” 

“Calm down, calm down, William Wallace,” 
said Virgil. 

“If it had been you that talked like that, I’d 
have broke every bone in your body,” said Wil- 
liam Wallace. “Just let you talk like that. You’re 
my age and size.” 

“But I ain’t going to talk like that,” said Virgil. 
“What have I done the whole time but keep this 
river-dragging going straight and running even, 
without no hitches? You couldn’t have drug the 
river a foot without me.” 

“What are you talking about! Without who!” 
cried William Wallace. “This wasn’t your river- 
dragging! It wasn’t your wife!” He jumped on 
Virgil and they began to fight. 

“Let me up.” Virgil was breathing heavily. 

“Say it was my wife. Say it was my river-drag- 
ging.” 

“Yours!” Virgil was on the ground with Wil- 
liam Wallace’s hand putting dirt in his mouth. 

“Say it was my net.” 

“Your net!” 



The Wide Net 


70 

“Get up then.” 

They walked along getting their breath, and 
smelling the honeysuckle in the evening. On a 
hill William Wallace looked down, and at the 
same time there went drifting by the sweet sounds 
of music outdoors. They were having the Sacred 
Harp Sing on the grounds of an old white church 
glimmering there at the crossroads, far below. He 
stared away as if he saw it minutely, as if he could 
see a lady in white take a flowered cover off the 
organ, which was set on a little slant in the shade, 
dust the keys, and start to pump and play. . . . 
He smiled faintly, as he would at his mother, and 
at Hazel, and at the singing women in his life, 
now all one young girl standing up to sing under 
the trees the oldest and longest ballads there were. 

Virgil told him good night and went into his 
own house and the door shut on him. 

When he got to his own house, William Wal- 
lace saw to his surprise that it had not rained at 
all. But there, curved over the roof, was some- 
thing he had never seen before as long as he could 
remember, a rainbow at night. In the light of the 
moon, which had risen again, it looked small and 
of gauzy material, like a lady’s summer dress, a 
faint veil through which the stars showed. 

He went up on the porch and in at the door, 
and all exhausted he had walked through the 
front room and through the kitchen when he 



The Wide Net 71 

heard his name called. After a moment, he smiled, 
as if no matter what he might have hoped for in 
his wildest heart, it was better than that to hear 
his name called out in the house. Xhe voice came 
out of the bedroom. 

What do you want?” he yelled, standing stock- 
still. 

Then she opened the bedroom door with the 
old complaining creak, and there she stood. She 
was not changed a bit. 

“How do you feel?” he said. 

“I feel pretty good. Not too good,” Hazel said, 
looking mysterious. 

“I cut my foot,” said William Wallace, taking 
his shoe off so she could see the blood. 

“How in the world did you do that?” she cried, 
with a step back. 

‘ Dragging the river. But it don’t hurt any 
longer.” 

“You ought to have been more careful,” she 
said. “Supper’s ready and I wondered if you 
would ever come home, or if it would be last 
night all over again. Go and make yourself fit to 
be seen,” she said, and ran away from him. 

After supper they sat on the front steps a while. 

“Where were you this morning when I came 
in?” asked William Wallace when they were ready 
to go in the house. 



The Wide Net 


73 

“I was hiding,” she said. “I was still writing on 
the letter. And then you tore it up.” 

“Did you watch me when I was reading it?” 

“Yes, and you could have put out your hand 
and touched me, I was so close.” 

But he bit his lip, and gave her a little tap and 
slap, and then turned her up and spanked her. 

“Do you think you will do it again?” he asked. 

“I’ll tell my mother on you for this!” 

“Will you do it again?” 

“No!” she cried. 

“Then pick yourself up off my knee.” 

It was just as if he had chased her and captured 
her again. She lay smiling in the crook of his arm. 
It was the same as any other chase in the end. 

“I will do it again if I get ready,” she said. 
“Next time will be different, too.” 

Then she was ready to go in, and rose up and 
looked out from the top step, out across their yard 
where the China tree was and beyond, into the 
dark fields where the lightning-bugs flickered 
away. He climbed to his feet too and stood beside 
her, with the frown on his face, trying to look 
where she looked. And after a few minutes she 
took him by the hand and led him into the house, 
smiling as if she were smiling down on him. 



A STILL MOMENT 


Os^ORENZo DOW rode the Old 
Natchez Trace at top speed upon a race horse, and 
the cry of the itinerant Man of God, “I must have 
souls! And souls I must have!” rang in his own 
windy ears. He rode as if never to stop, toward his 
night’s appointment. 

It was the hour of sunset. All the souls that he 
had saved and all those he had not took dusky 
shapes in the mist that hung between the high 
banks, and seemed by their great number and 
density to block his way, and showed no signs of 
melting or changing back into mist, so that he 
feared his passage was to be difficult forever. The 
poor souls that were not saved were darker and 
more pitiful than those that were, and still there 
was not any of the radiance he would have hoped 
to see in such a congregation. 

“Light up, in God’s name!” he called, in the 
pain of his disappointment. 

Then a whole swarm of fireflies instantly flick- 


73 



The Wide Net 


74 

ered all around him, up and down, back and 
forth, first one golden light and then another, 
flashing without any of the weariness that had 
held back the souls. These were the signs sent 
from God that he had not seen the accumulated 
radiance of saved souls because he was not able, 
and that his eyes were more able to see the fire- 
flies of the Lord than His blessed souls. 

“Lord, give me the strength to see the angels 
when I am in Paradise,” he said. “Do not let my 
eyes remain in this failing proportion to my lov- 
ing heart always.” 

He gasped and held on. It was that day’s com- 
plexity of horse-trading that had left him in the 
end with a Spanish race horse for which he was 
bound to send money in November from Georgia. 
Riding faster on the beast and still faster until he 
felt as if he were flying he sent thoughts of love 
with matching speed to his wife Peggy in Massa- 
chusetts. He found it effortless to love at a dis- 
tance. He could look at the flowering trees and 
love Peggy in fullness, just as he could see his 
visions and love God. And Peggy, to whom he had 
not spoken until he could speak fateful words 
(“Would she accept of such an object as him?”), 
Peggy, the bride, with whom he had spent a few 
hours of time, showing of herself a small round 
handwriting, declared all in one letter, her first, 



A Still Moment yg 

that she felt the same as he, and that the fear was 
never of separation, but only of death. 

Lorenzo well knew that it was Death that 
opened underfoot, that rippled by at night, that 
was the silence the birds did their singing in. He 
was close to death, closer than any animal or bird. 
On the back of one horse after another, winding 
them all, he was always riding toward it or away 
from it, and the Lord sent him directions with 
protection in His mind. 

Just then he rode into a thicket of Indians tak- 
ing aim with their new guns. One stepped out and 
took the horse by the bridle, it stopped at a touch, 
and the rest made a closing circle. The guns 
pointed. 

“Incline!” The inner voice spoke sternly and 
with its customary lightning-quickness. 

Lorenzo inclined all the way forward and put 
his head to the horse’s silky mane, his body to its 
body, until a bullet meant for him would endan- 
ger the horse and make his death of no value. 
Prone he rode out through the circle of Indians, 
his obedience to the voice leaving him almost fear- 
less, almost careless with joy. 

But as he straightened and pressed ahead, care 
caught up with him again. Turning half-beast and 
half-divine, dividing himself like a heathen Cen- 
taur, he had escaped his death once more. But 
was it to be always by some metamorphosis of 



The Wide Net 


76 

himself that he escaped, some humiliation of his 
faith, some admission to strength and argumen- 
tation and not frailty? Each time when he acted so 
it was at the command of an instinct that he took 
at once as the word of an angel, until too late, 
when he knew it was the word of the devil. He 
had roared like a tiger at Indians, he had sub- 
merged himself in water blowing the savage bub- 
bles of the alligator, and they skirted him by. 
He had prostrated himself to appear dead, and 
deceived bears. But all the time God would have 
protected him in His own way, less hurried, more 
divine. 

Even now he saw a serpent crossing the Trace, 
giving out knowing glances. 

He cried, “I know you now!”, and the serpent 
gave him one look out of which all the fire had 
been taken, and went away in two darts into the 
tangle. 

He rode on, all expectation, and the voices in 
the throats of the wild beasts went, almost with- 
out his noticing when, into words. “Praise God,” 
they said. “Deliver us from one another.” Birds 
especially sang of divine love which was the one 
ceaseless protection. “Peace, in peace,” were their 
tvords so many times when they spoke from the 
briars, in a courteous sort of inflection, and he 
turned his countenance toward all perched crea- 



A Still Moment 77 

tures with a benevolence striving to match their 
own. 

He rode on past the little intersecting trails, let- 
ting himself be guided by voices and by lights. It 
was battlesounds he heard most, sending him on, 
but sometimes ocean sounds, that long beat of 
waves that would make his heart pound and re- 
treat as heavily as they, and he despaired again in 
his failure in Ireland when he took a voyage and 
persuaded with the Catholics with his back against 
the door, and then ran away to their cries of 
“Mind the white hat!” But when he heard sing- 
ing it was not the militant and sharp sound of 
Wesley’s hymns, but a soft, tireless and tender air 
that had no beginning and no end, and the soft- 
ness of distance, and he had pleaded with the Lord 
to find out if all this meant that it was wicked, but 
no answer had come. 

Soon night would descend, and a camp-meeting 
ground ahead would fill with its sinners like the 
sky with its stars. How he hungered for them! 
He looked in prescience with a longing of love 
over the throng that waited while the flames of 
the torches threw change, change, change over 
their faces. How could he bring them enough, if 
it were not divine love and suflicient warning of 
all that could threaten them? He rode on faster. 
He was a filler of appointments, and he filled more 
and more, until his journeys up and down ere- 



y8 The Wide Net 

ation were nothing but a shuttle, driving back and 
forth upon the rich expanse of his vision. He was 
homeless by his own choice, he must be every- 
where at some time, and somewhere soon. There 
hastening in the wilderness on his flying horse he 
gave the night’s torch-lit crowd a premature bene- 
diction, he could not wait. He spread his arms 
out, one at a time for safety, and he wished, when 
they would all be gathered in by his tin horn 
blasts and the inspired words would go out over 
their heads, to brood above the entire and pas- 
sionate life of the wide world, to become its right- 
ful part. 

He peered ahead. “Inhabitants of Time! The 
wilderness is your souls on earth!” he shouted 
ahead into the treetops. “Look about you, if you 
would view the conditions of your spirit, put here 
by the good Lord to show you and afright you. 
These wild places and these trails of awesome 
loneliness lie nowhere, nowhere, but in your 
heart.” 

A dark man, who was James Murrell the out- 
law, rode his horse out of a cane brake and began 
going along beside Lorenzo without looking at 
him. He had the alternately proud and aggrieved 
look of a man believing himself to be an instru- 
ment in the hands of a power, and when he was 
young he said at once to strangers that he was be- 



A Still Moment *jg 

ing used by Evil, or sometimes he stopped a t^a^i'- 
eler by shouting, “Stop! I’m the Devil!” He rode 
along now -talking and drawing out his talk, by 
some deep control of the voice gradually slowing 
the speed of Lorenzo’s horse down until both the 
horses were softly trotting. He would have won- 
dered that nothing he said was heard, not know- 
ing that Lorenzo listened only to voices of whose 
heavenly origin he was more certain. 

Murrell riding along with his victim-to-be, 
Murrell riding, was Murrell talking. He told 
away at his long tales, with always a distance and 
a long length of time flowing through them, and 
all centered about a silent man. In each the silent 
man would have done a piece of evil, a robbery or 
a murder, in a place of long ago, and it was all 
made for the revelation in the end that the silent 
man was Murrell himself, and the long story had 
happened yesterday, and the place here— the 
Natchez Trace. It would only take one dawning 
look for the victim to see that all of this was an- 
other story and he himself had listened his way 
into it, and that he too was about to recede in 
time (to where the dread was forgotten) for some 
listener and to live for a listener in the long ago. 
Destroy the present!— that must have been the 
first thing that was whispered in Murrell’s heart 
—the living moment and the man that lives in it 
must die before you can go on. It was his habit to 



8o 


The Wide Net 


bring the journey— which might even take days— 
to a close with a kind of ceremony. Turning his 
face at last into the face of the victim, for he had 
never seen him before now, he would tower up 
with the sudden height of a man no longer the 
tale teller but the speechless protagonist, silent at 
last, one degree nearer the hero. Then he would 
murder the man. 

But it would always start over. This man going 
forward was going backward with talk. He saw 
nothing, observed no world at all. The two ends 
of his journey pulled at him always and held him 
in a nowhere, half asleep, smiling and witty, 
dangling his predicament. He was a murderer 
whose final stroke was over-long postponed, who 
had to bring himself through the greatest tedium 
to act, as if the whole wilderness, where he was 
born, were his impediment. But behind him and 
before him he kept in sight a victim, he saw a man 
fixed and stayed at the point of death— no matter 
how the man’s eyes denied it, a victim, hands 
spreading to reach as if for the first time for life. 
Contempt! That is what Murrell gave that man. 

Lorenzo might have understood, if he had not 
been in haste, that Murrell in laying hold of a 
man meant to solve his mystery of being. It was 
as if other men, all but himself, would lighten 
their hold on the secret, upon assault, and let it 
fly free at death. In his violence he was only treat- 



A Still Moment 8i 

ing of enigma. The violence shook his own body 
first, like a force gathering, and now he turned 
in the saddle. 

Lorenzo’s despair had to be kindled as well as 
his ecstasy, and could not come without that kin- 
dling. Before the awe-filled moment when the 
faces were turned up under the flares, as though 
an angel hand tipped their chins, he had no ^vay 
of telling whether he would enter the sermon by 
sorrow or by joy. But at this moment the face of 
Murrell was turned toward him, turning at last, 
all solitary, in its full, and Lorenzo would have 
seized the man at once by his black coat and 
shaken him like prey for a lost soul, so instantly 
was he certain that the false fire was in his heart 
instead of the true fire. But Murrell, quick livhen 
he was quick, had put his own hand out, a re- 
straining hand, and laid it on the wavelike flesh 
of the Spanish race horse, which quivered and 
shuddered at the touch. 

They had come to a great live-oak tree at the 
edge of a low marsh-land. The burning sun hung 
low, like a head lowered on folded arms, and over 
the long reaches of violet trees the evening 
seemed still with thought. Lorenzo knew the place 
from having seen it among many in dreams, and 
he stopped readily and willingly. He drew rein, and 
Murrell drew rein, he dismounted and Murrell 
dismounted, he took a step, and Murrell was 



The Wide Net 


82 

there too; and Lorenzo was not surprised at the 
closeness, how Murrell in his long dark coat and 
over it his dark face darkening still, stood beside 
him like a brother seeking light. 

But in that moment instead of two men coming 
to stop by the great forked tree, there were three. 

From far away, a student, Audubon, had been 
approaching lightly on the wilderness floor, dis- 
turbing nothing in his lightness. The long day 
of beauty had led him this certain distance. A 
flock of purple finches that he tried for the first 
moment to count went over his head. He made a 
spelling of the soft pet of the ivory-billed wood- 
pecker. He told himself always: remember. 

Coming upon the Trace, he looked at the high 
cedars, azure and still as distant smoke overhead, 
with their silver roots trailing down on either 
side like the veins of deepness in this place, and 
he noted some fact to his memory— this earth that 
wears but will not crumble or slide or turn to 
dust, they say it exists in one other spot in the 
world, Egypt— and then forgot it. He walked 
quietly. All life used this Trace, and he liked to 
see the animals move along it in direct, oblivious 
journeys, for they had begun it and made it, the 
buffalo and deer and the small running creatures 
before man ever knew where he wanted to go, 
and birds flew a great mirrored course above. 



A Still Moment 83 

Walking beneath them Audubon remembered 
how in the cities he had seen these very birds 
in his imagination, calling them up whenever he 
wished, even in the hard and glittering outer par- 
lors where if an artist were humble enough to 
wait, some idle hand held up promised money. 
He walked lightly and he went as carefully as he 
had started at two that morning, crayon and 
paper, a gun, and a small bottle of spirits dis- 
posed about his body. (Note: “The mocking 
birds so gentle that they would scarcely move out 
of the way.”) He looked with care; great abun- 
dance had ceased to startle him, and he could see 
things one by one. In Natchez they had told him 
of many strange and marvelous birds that were to 
be found here. Their descriptions had been ex- 
act, complete, and wildly varying, and he took 
them for inventions and believed that like all the 
worldly things that came out of Natchez, they 
would be disposed of and shamed by any man’s 
excursion into the reality of Nature. 

In the valley he appeared under the tree, a sure 
man, very sure and tender, as if the touch of all 
the earth rubbed upon him and the stains of the 
flowery swamp had made him so. 

Lorenzo welcomed him and turned fond eyes 
upon him. To transmute a man into an angel was 
the hope that drove him all over the world and 
never let him flinch from a meeting or withhold 



The Wide Net 


84 

good-byes for long. This hope insistently divided 
his life into only two parts, journey and rest. 
There could be no night and day and love and 
despair and longing and satisfaction to make par- 
titions in the single ecstasy of this alternation. 
All things were speech. 

“God created the world,” said Lorenzo, “and 
it exists to give testimony. Life is the tongue: 
speak.” 

But instead of speech there happened a moment 
of deepest silence. 

Audubon said nothing because he had gone 
without speaking a word for days. He did not 
regard his thoughts for the birds and animals as 
susceptible, in their first change, to words. His 
long playing on the flute was not in its origin a 
talking to himself. Rather than speak to order or 
describe, he would always draw a deer with a 
stroke across it to communicate his need of veni- 
son to an Indian. He had only found words when 
he discovered that there is much otherwise lost 
that can be noted down each item in its own day, 
and he wrote often now in a journal, not wanting 
anything to be lost the way it had been, all the 
past, and he would write about a day, “Only 
sorry that the Sun Sets.” 

Murrell, his cheated hand hiding the gun, 
could only continue to smile at Lorenzo, but he 
remembered in malice that he had disguised him- 



A Still Moment 


85 


self once as an Evangelist, and his final words to 
this victim would have been, “One of my disguises 
was what you are.” 

Then in Murrell Audubon saw what he 
thought of as “acquired sorrow”— that cumbrous- 
ness and darkness from which the naked Indian, 
coming just as he was made from God’s hand, was 
so lightly free. He noted the eyes— the dark kind 
that loved to look through chinks, and saw neither 
closeness nor distance, light nor shade, wonder 
nor familiarity. They were narrowed to contract 
the heart, narrowed to make an averting plan. 
Audubon knew the finest-drawn tendons of the 
body and the working of their power, for he had 
touched them, and he supposed then that in man 
the enlargement of the eye to see started a mo- 
tion in the hands to make or do, and that the nar- 
rowing of the eye stopped the hand and con- 
tracted the heart. Now Murrell’s eyes followed an 
ant on a blade of grass, up the blade and down, 
many times in the single moment. Audubon had 
examined the Cave-In Rock where one robber 
had lived his hiding life, and the air in the cave 
was the cavelike air that enclosed this man, the 
same odor, flinty and dark. O secret life, he 
thought— is it true that the secret is withdrawn 
from the true disclosure, that man is a cave man, 
and that the openness I see, the ivays through 
forests, the rivers brimming light, the wide arches 



86 The Wide Net 

where the birds fly, are dreams of freedom? If my 
origin is withheld from me, is my end to be un- 
known too? Is the radiance I see closed into an 
interval between two darks, or can it not illumi- 
nate them both and discover at last, though it 
cannot be spoken, what was thought hidden and 
lost? 

In that quiet moment a solitary snowy heron 
flew down not far away and began to feed beside 
the marsh water. 

At the single streak of flight, the ears of the 
race horse lifted, and the eyes of both horses filled 
with the soft lights of sunset, which in the next 
instant were reflected in the eyes of the men too 
as they all looked into the west toward the heron, 
and all eyes seemed infused with a sort of wild- 
ness. 

Lorenzo gave the bird a triumphant look, such 
as a man may bestow upon his own vision, and 
thought. Nearness is near, lighted in a marsh-land, 
feeding at sunset. Praise God, His love has come 
visible. 

Murrell, in suspicion pursuing all glances, 
blinking into a haze, saw only whiteness en- 
sconced in darkness, as if it were a little luminous 
shell that drew in and held the eyesight. When 
he shaded his eyes, the brand “H.T.” on his 
thumb thrust itself into his own vision, and he 
looked at the bird with the whole plan of the 



A Still Moment 87 

Mystic Rebellion darting from him as if in rays 
of the bright reflected light, and he stood look- 
ing proudly, leader as he was bound to become 
of the slaves, the brigands and outcasts of the en- 
tire Natchez country, with plans, dates, maps 
burning like a brand into his brain, and he saw 
himself proudly in a moment of prophecy going 
down rank after rank of successively bowing 
slaves to unroll and flaunt an awesome great pic- 
ture of the Devil colored on a banner. 

Audubon’s eyes embraced the object in the dis- 
tance and he could see it as carefully as if he held 
it in his hand. It was a snowy heron alone out of 
its flock. He watched it steadily, in his care noting 
the exact inevitable things. When it feeds it mud- 
dies the water with its foot. ... It was as if each 
detail about the heron happened slowly in time, 
and only once. He felt again the old stab of won- 
der— -what structure of life bridged the reptile’s 
scale and the heron’s feather? That knowledge too 
had been lost. He watched without moving. The 
bird was defenseless in the world except for the 
intensity of its life, and he wondered, how can 
heat of blood and speed of heart defend it? Then 
he thought, as always as if it were new and unbe- 
lievable, it has nothing in space or time to prevent 
its flight. And he waited, knowing that some birds 
will wait for a sense of their presence to travel to 
men before they will fly away from them. 



88 The Wide Net 

Fixed in its pure white profile it stood in the 
precipitous moment, a plumicorn on its head, its 
breeding dress extended in rays, eating steadily 
the little water creatures. There was a little space 
between each man and the others, where they 
stood overwhelmed. No one could say the three 
had ever met, or that this moment of intersection 
had ever come in their lives, or its promise ful- 
filled. But before them the white heron rested in 
the grasses with the evening all around it, lighter 
and more serene than the evening, flight closed 
in its body, the circuit of its beauty closed, a bird 
seen and a bird still, its motion calm as if it were 
offered; Take my flight. . . . 

What each of them had wanted was simply all. 
To save all souls, to destroy all men, to see and 
to record all life that filled this world— all, all— 
but now a single frail yearning seemed to go out 
of the three of them for a moment and to stretch 
toward this one snowy, shy bird in the marshes. 
It was as if three whirlwinds had drawn together 
at some center, to find there feeding in peace a 
snowy heron. Its own slow spiral of flight could 
take it away in its own time, but for a little it 
held them still, it laid quiet over them, and they 
stood for a moment unburdened. . . . 

Murrell wore no mask, for his face was that, a 
face that was aware while he was somnolent, a face 
that watched for him, and listened for him, alert 



A Still Moment 89 

and nearly brutal, the guard of a planner. He 
quick without that he might be slow within, lie 
staved oft time, he wandered and plotted, and yet 
his whole desire mounted in him toward the end 
(was this the end— the sight of a bird feeding at 
dusk?), toward the instant of confession. His in- 
cessant deeds were thick in his heart now, and 
flinging himself to the ground he thought wearily, 
when all these trees are cut down, and the Trace 
lost, then my Conspiracy that is yet to spread it- 
self will be disclosed, and all the stone-loaded 
bodies of murdered men will be pulled up, and 
all everywhere will know poor Murrell. His look 
pressed upon Lorenzo, who stared upward, and 
Audubon, who was taking out his gun, and his 
eyes squinted up to them in pleading, as if to say, 
“How soon may I speak, and how soon will you 
pity me?” Then he looked back to the bird, and 
he thought if it would look at him a dread pene- 
tration would fill and gratify his heart. 

Audubon in each act of life was aware of the 
mysterious origin he half-concealed and half- 
sought for. People along the way asked him in 
their kindness or their rudeness if it were true, 
that he was born a prince, and was the Lost 
Dauphin, and some said it was his secret, and 
some said that that was what he wished to find 
out before he died. But if it was his identity that 
he wished to discover, or if it was what a man 



The Wide Net 


90 

had to seize beyond that, the way for him was by 
endless examination, by the care for every bird 
that flew in his path and every serpent that shone 
underfoot. Not one was enough; he looked deeper 
and deeper, on and on, as if for a particular beast 
or some legendary bird. Some men’s eyes persisted 
in looking outward when they opened to look in- 
ward, and to their delight, there outflung was the 
astonishing world under the sky. When a man at 
last brought Ihimself to face some mirror-surface 
he still saw the world looking back at him, and if 
he continued to look, to look closer and closer, 
what then? The gaze that looks outward must be 
trained without rest, to be indomitable. It must 
see as slowly as Murrell’s ant in the grass, as ex- 
haustively as Lorenzo’s angel of God, and then, 
Audubon dreamed, with his mind going to his 
pointed brush, it must see like this, and he tight- 
ened his hand on the trigger of the gun and 
pulled it, and his eyes went closed. In memory 
the heron was all its solitude, its total beauty. All 
its whiteness could be seen from all sides at once, 
its pure feathers were as if counted and known 
and their array one upon the other would never 
be lost. But it was not from that memory that he 
could paint. 

His opening eyes met Lorenzo’s, close and flash- 
ing, and it was on seeing horror deep in them, like 
fires in abysses, that he recognized it for the first 



A Still Moment 91 

time. He had never seen horror in its purity and 
clarity until now, in bright blue eyes. He went 
and picked up the bird. He had thought it to be 
a female, just as one sees the moon as female; and 
so it was. He put it in his bag, and started away. 
But Lorenzo had already gone on, leaning a-tilt 
on the horse which went slowly. 

Murrell was left behind, but he was proud of 
the dispersal, as if he had done it, as if he had al- 
ways known that three men in simply being to- 
gether and doing a thing can, by their obstinacy, 
take the pride out of one another. Each must go 
away alone, each send the others away alone. He 
himself had purposely kept to the wildest country 
in the world, and would have sought it out, the 
loneliest road. He looked about with satisfaction, 
and hid. Travelers were forever innocent, he be- 
lieved: that was his faith. He lay in wait; his faith 
was in innocence and his knowledge was of ruin; 
and had these things been shaken? Now, what 
could possibly be outside his grasp? Churning all 
about him like a cloud about the sun was the 
great folding descent of his thought. Plans of 
deeds made his thoughts, and they rolled and 
mingled about his ears as if he heard a dark voice 
that rose up to overcome the wilderness voice, or 
was one with it. The night would soon come; and 
he had gone through the day. 

Audubon, splattered and wet, turned back into 



The Wide Net 


92 

the wilderness with the heron warm under his 
hand, his head still light in a kind of trance. It 
was undeniable, on some Sunday mornings, when 
he turned over and over his drawings they seemed 
beautiful to him, through what was dramatic in 
the conflict of life, or what was exact. What he 
would draw, and what he had seen, became for a 
moment one to him then. Yet soon enough, and it 
seemed to come in that same moment, like Lo- 
renzo’s horror and the gun’s firing, he knew that 
even the sight of the heron which surely he alone 
had appreciated, had not been all his belonging, 
and that never could any vision, even any simple 
sight, belong to him or to any man. He knew that 
the best he could make would be, after it was 
apart from his hand, a dead thing and not a live 
thing, never the essence, only a sum of parts; and 
that it would always meet with a stranger’s sight, 
and never be one with the beauty in any other 
man’s head in the world. As he had seen the bird 
most purely at its moment of death, in some fatal 
way, in his care for looking outward, he saw his 
long labor most revealingly at the point where it 
met its limit. Still carefully, for he was trained 
to see well in the dark, he walked on into the 
deeper woods, noting all sights, all sounds, and 
was gentler than they as he went. 

In the woods that echoed yet in his ears, Lo- 
renzo riding slowly looked back. The hair rose on 



A Still Moment 93 

his head and his hands began to shake with cold 
and suddenly it seemed to him that God Himself, 
just now, thought of the Idea of Separateness. For 
surely He had never thought of it before, when 
the little white heron was flying down to feed. He 
could understand God’s giving Separateness first 
and then giving Love to follow and heal in its 
wonder; but God had reversed this, and given 
Love first and then Separateness, as though it did 
not matter to Him which came first. Perhaps it 
was that God never counted the moments of 
Time; Lorenzo did that, among his tasks of love. 
Time did not occur to God. Therefore— did He 
even know of it? How to explain Time and Sepa- 
rateness back to God, Who had never thought of 
them. Who could let the whole world come to 
grief in a scattering moment? 

Lorenzo brought his cold hands together in a 
clasp and stared through the distance at the place 
where the bird had been as if he saw it still; as if 
nothing could really take away what had happened 
to him, the beautiful little vision of the feeding 
bird. Its beauty had been greater than he could 
account for. The sweat of rapture poured down 
from his forehead, and then he shouted into the 
marshes. 

“Tempter!” 

He whirled forward in the saddle and began to 
hurry the horse to its high speed. His camp ground 



The Wide Net 


94 

was far away still, though even now they must be 
lighting the torches and gathering in the multi- 
tudes, so that at the appointed time he would 
duly appear in their midst, to deliver his address 
on the subject of “In that day when all hearts 
shall be disclosed.” 

Then the sun dropped below the trees, and the 
new moon, slender and white, hung shyly in the 
west. 



ASPHODEL 


C/t WAS a cloudless day— a round 
hill where the warm winds blew. It was noon, 
and without a shadow the line of columns rose 
in perfect erectness from the green vines. There 
was a quiver of birdsong. A little company of 
three women stood fixed on the slope before 
the ruin, holding wicker baskets between them. 
They were not young. There were identical looks 
of fresh mourning on their faces. A wind blcTV' 
down from the columns, and the white dimity 
fluttered about their elbows. 

“Look-” 

“Asphodel.” 

It was a golden ruin: six Doric columns, with 
the entablature unbroken over the first two, full- 
facing the approach. The sky was pure, transpar- 
ent, and round like a shell over this hill. 

The three women drew nearer, in postures that 
were still from ministrations, and that came from 
a mourning procession. 

9S 



The Wide Net 


96 

“This is Asphodel,” they repeated, looking 
modestly upward to the frieze of maidens that was 
saturated with sunlight and seemed to fill with 
color, and before which the branch of a leafy tree 
was trembling. 

“If there’s one place in the solid world where 
Miss Sabina would never look for us, it’s Aspho- 
del,” they said. “She forbade it,” they said virtu- 
ously. “She would never tolerate us to come, to 
Mr. Don Mclnnis’s Asphodel, or even to say his 
name.” 

“Her funeral was yesterday, and we’ve cried 
our eyes dry,” said one of the three. “And as for 
saying Mr. Don’s name out loud, of course he is 
dead too.” And they looked from one to the other 
—Cora, Phoebe, and Irene, all old maids, in hang- 
ing summer cottons, carrying picnic baskets. The 
way was so narrow they had come in a buggy, then 
walked. 

There was not a shadow. It was high noon. A 
honey locust bent over their heads, sounding with 
the bees that kept at its bee-like flowers. 

“This is the kind of day I could just eat!” cried 
Cora ardently. 

They were another step forward. A little stream 
spread from rock to rock and over the approach. 
Then their shoes were off, and their narrow 
maiden feet hung trembling in the rippling water. 



Asphodel 97 

The wind had shaken loose their gray and scanty 
hair. They smiled at one another. 

“I used to be scared of little glades/’ said 
Phoebe. “I used to think something, something 
wild, would come and carry me off.” 

Then they were laughing freely all at once, dry- 
ing their feet on the other side of the stream. The 
mocking-birds seemed to imitate flutes in the mid- 
day air. The horse they had unhitched champed 
on the hill, always visible— an old horse that 
seemed about to run, his mane fluttering in the 
light and his tail flaunted like a decoration he 
had only just put on. 

Then the baskets were opened, the cloth was 
spread with the aromatic ham and chicken, spices 
and jellies, fresh breads and a cake, peaches, ba- 
nanas, figs, pomegranates, grapes, and a thin dark 
bottle of blackberry cordial. 

“There’s one basket left in the buggy,” said 
Irene, always the last to yield. “I like to have a 
little something saved back.” 

The women reclined before the food, beside 
the warm and weighty pedestal. Above them the 
six columns seemed to be filled with the inhala- 
tions of summer and to be suspended in the rest- 
ing of noon. 

They pressed at the pomegranate stains on 
their mouths. And then they began to tell ovei 



The Wide Net 


98 

Miss Sabina’s story, their voices serene and alike: 
how she looked, the legend of her beauty when she 
was young, the house where she was born and 
what happened in it, and how she came out when 
she was old, and her triumphal way, and the piti- 
ful end when she toppled to her death in a dusty 
place where she was a stranger, that she had de- 
spised and deplored. 

“Miss Sabina’s house stood on the high hill,’’ 
Cora said, but the lips of the others moved with 
hers. It was like an old song they carried in their 
memory, the story of the two houses separated by 
a long, winding, difficult, untravelled road— a 
curve of the old Natchez Trace— but actually situ- 
ated almost back to back on the ring of hills, while 
completely hidden from each other, like the re- 
liefs on opposite sides of a vase. 

“It commanded the town that came to be at its 
foot. Her house was a square of marble and stone, 
the front was as dark as pitch under the magnolia 
trees. Not one blade of grass grew in the hard 
green ground, but in some places a root stuck up 
like a serpent. Inside, the house was all wood, dark 
wood carved and fluted, long hallways, great stair- 
cases of walnut, ebony beds that filled a room, 
even mahogany roses in the ceilings, where the 
chandeliers hung down like red glass fruit. There 
was one completely dark inside room. The house 
was a labyrinth set with statues— Venus, Hermes, 



Asphodel 99 

Demeter, and with singing ocean shells on draped 
pedestals. 

“Miss Sabina’s father came bringing Mr. Don 
Mclnnis home, and proposed the marriage to him. 
She was no longer young for suitors; she was in- 
structed to submit. On the marriage night the 
house was ablaze, and lighted the town and the 
wedding guests climbing the hill. We were there. 
The presents were vases of gold, gold cups, statues 
of Diana. . . . And the bride . . . We had not 
forgotten it yesterday when we drew it from the 
chest— the stiff white gown she wore! It never 
made a rustle when she gave him her hand. It was 
spring, the flowers in the baskets were purple hya- 
cinths and white lilies that wilted in the heat and 
showed their blue veins. Ladies fainted from the 
scent; the gentlemen were without exception 
drunk, and Mr. Don Mclnnis, with his head turn- 
ing quickly from side to side, like an animal’s, 
opened his mouth and laughed.’’ 

Irene said: “A great, profane man like all the 
Mclnnis men of Asphodel, Mr. Don Mclnnis. He 
was the last of his own, just as she was the last of 
hers. The hope was in him, and he knew it. He 
had a sudden way of laughter, like a rage, that 
pointed his eyebrows that were yellow, and 
changed his face. That night he stood astride . . . 
astride the rooms, the guests, the flowers, the ta- 



100 


The Wide Net 


pers, the bride and her father with his purple face. 
‘What, Miss Sabina?’ he would roar, though she 
had never said a word, not one word . . . waiting 
in the stiffened gown that took then its odor of 
burning wax. We remembered that, that roar, that 
‘What, Miss Sabina?’ and we whispered it among 
ourselves later when we embroidered together, as 
though it were a riddle that young ladies could 
not answer. He seemed never to have said any 
other thing to her. He was dangerous that first 
night, swaying with drink, trampling the scattered 
flowers, led up to a ceremony there before all our 
eyes. Miss Sabina so rigid by his side. He was a 
Mclnnis, a man that would be like a torch carried 
into a house.” 

The three old maids, who lay like a faded gar- 
land at the foot of the columns, paused in peace- 
ful silence. When the story was taken up again, it 
was in Phoebe’s delicate and gentle way, for its 
narrative was only part of memory now, and its 
beginning and ending might seem mingled and 
freed in the blue air of the hill. 

‘‘She bore three children, two boys and a girl, 
and one by one they died as they reached matu- 
rity. There was Minerva and she was drowned— 
before her wedding day. There was Theo, coming 
out from the university in his gown of the law, 
and killed in a fall off the wild horse he was bound 



Asphodel loi 

to ride. And there was Lucian the youngest, shoot- 
ing himself publicly on the courthouse steps, 
drunk in the broad daylight. 

“Who can tell what will happen in this world!” 
said Phoebe, and she looked placidly up into the 
featureless sky overhead. 

“It all served to make Miss Sabina prouder than 
ever,” Irene said. “She was born grand, with a 
will to impose, and now she had only Mr. Don 
left, to impose it upon. But he was a Mclnnis. He 
had the wildness we all worshipped that first night, 
since he was not to be ours to love. He was un- 
faithful— maybe always— maybe once—” 

“We told the news,” said Cora. “We went in a 
body up the hill and into the house, weeping and 
wailing, hardly daring to name the name or the 
deed.” 

“It was in the big hall by the statues of the Sea- 
sons, and she stood up to listen to us all the way 
through,” Irene murmured. “She didn’t move— 
she didn’t blink her eye. We stood there in our 
little half-circle not daring to come closer. Then 
she reached out both her arms as though she 
would embrace us all, and made fists with her 
hands, with the sharp rings cutting into her, and 
called down the curse of heaven on everybody’s 
head— his, and the woman’s, and the dead chil- 
dren’s, and ours. Then she walked out, and the 
door of her bedroom closed.” 



102 The Wide Net 

“We ran away,” said Phoebe languidly. “We 
ran down the steps and in and out of the boxwood 
garden, around the fountain, all clutching one an- 
other as though we were pursued, and away 
through the street, crying. She never shed a tear, 
whatever happened, but we shed enough for 
everybody.” 

Cora said: “By that time, her father was dead 
and there was no one to right the wrong. And Mr. 
Don— he only flourished. He wore white linen 
suits summer and winter. She declared the light- 
ning would strike him for the destruction he had 
brought on her, but it never struck. She never 
closed her eyes a single night, she was so outraged 
and so undone. She would not eat a bite for any- 
body. We carried things up to her— soups, birds, 
wines, frozen surprises, cold shapes, one after the 
other. She only pushed them away. It could have 
been thought that life with the beast was the one 
thing in the living world to be pined after. But 
‘How can I hate him enough?’ she said over and 
over. ‘How can I show him the hate I have for 
him?’ She implored us to tell her.” 

“We heard he was running away to Asphodel,” 
said Irene, “and taking the woman. And when we 
went and told Miss Sabina, she would not tvait 
any longer for an act of God to punish him, 
though we took her and held her till she pushed 
us from her side.” 



Asphodel 103 

“She drove Mr. Don out of the house,” said 
Cora, to whom the cordial was now passed. “Drove 
him out with a whip, in the broad daylight. It was 
a day like this, in summer— I remember the mag- 
nolias that made the air so heavy and full of sleep. 
It was just after dinner time and all the popula- 
tion came out and stood helpless to see, as if in a 
dream. Like a demon she sprang from the door 
and rushed down the long iron steps, driving him 
before her with the buggy whip, that had a purple 
tassel. He walked straight ahead as if to humor 
her, with his white hat lifted and held in his 
hand.” 

“We followed at a little distance behind her, in 
case she should faint,” said Phoebe. “But we were 
the ones who were near to fainting, when she set 
her feet in the gateway after driving him through, 
and called at the top of her voice for the woman 
to come forward. She longed to whip her there 
and then. But no one came forward. She swore 
that we were hiding and protecting some wretched 
creature, that we were all in league. Miss Sabina 
put a great blame on the whole town.” 

“When Asphodel burned that night,” said 
Cora, “and we all saw the fire raging on the sky, 
we ran and told her, and she was gratified— but 
from that moment remote from us and grand. 
And she laid down the law that the name of Don 



The Wide Net 


104 

Mclnnis and the name of Asphodel were not to 
cross our lips again. . . 

The prodigious columns shone down and ap- 
peared tremulous with the tender light of summer 
which enclosed them all around, in equal and 
shadowless flame. They seemed to flicker with the 
flight of birds. 

“Miss Sabina,” said Irene, “for the rest of her 
life was proceeding through the gateway and down 
the street, and all her will was turned upon the 
population.” 

“She was painted to be beautiful and terrible 
in the face, all dark around the eyes,” said 
Phoebe, “in the way of grand ladies of the South 
grown old. She wore a fine jet-black wig of great 
size, for she had lost her hair by some illness or 
violence. She went draped in the heavy brocades 
from her family trunks, which she hung about her- 
self in some bitter disregard. She would do no 
more than pin them and tie them into place. 
Through such a weight of material her knees 
pushed slowly, her progress was hampered but she 
came on. Her look was the challenging one when 
looks met, though only Miss Sabina knew why 
there had to be any clangor of encounter among 
peaceable people. We knew she had been beauti- 
ful. Her hands were small, and as hot to the touch 
as a child’s under the sharp diamonds. One hand. 



Asphodel 105 

the right one, curved round and clenched an 
ebony stick mounted with the gold head of a 
lion.” 

“She took her stick and went down the street 
proclaiming and wielding her power,” said Cora. 
“Her power reached over the whole population- 
white and black, men and women, children, idiots, 
and animals— even strangers. Her law was laid 
over us, her riches were distributed upon us; we 
were given a museum and a statue, a waterworks. 
And we stood in fear of her, old and young and 
like ourselves. At the May Festival when she 
passed by, all the maypoles became hopelessly 
tangled, one by one. Her good wish and her 
censure could be as clearly told apart as a white 
horse from a black one. All news was borne to her 
first, and she interrupted every news-bearer. ‘You 
don’t have to tell me: I know. The woman is 
dead. The child is born. The man is proved a 
thief.’ There would be a time when she appeared 
at the door of every house on the street, pounding 
with her cane. She dominated every ceremony, set 
the times for weddings and for funerals, even for 
births, and she named the children. She ordered 
lives about and moved people from one place 
to another in the town, brought them together or 
drove them apart, with the mystical and rigorous 
devotion of a priestess in a story; and she prophe- 
sied all the things beforehand. She foretold dis- 



io6 The Wide Net 

aster, and was ready with hot breads and soups to 
send by running Negroes to every house the mo- 
ment it struck. And she expected her imparted 
recipes to be used forever after, and no other. We 
are eating Miss Sabina’s cake now. . . .” 

“But at the end of the street there was one door 
where Miss Sabina had never entered,” said 
Phoebe. “The door of the post office. She acted 
as if the post office had no existence in the world, 
or else she called it a dirty little room with the 
door standing wide open to the flies. All the hate 
she had left in her when she was old went out to 
a little four-posted whitewashed building, the post 
office. It was beyond her domain. For there we 
might still be apart in a dream, and she did not 
know what it was.” 

“But in the end, she came in,” said Irene. 

“We were there,” she said. “It was mail time, 
and we each had a letter in our hands. We heard 
her come to the end of the street, the heavy stag- 
gering figure coming to the beat of the cane. We 
were silent all at once. When Miss Sabina is at 
the door, there is no other place in the world but 
where you stand, and no other afternoon but that 
one, past or future. We held onto our letters as 
onto all far-away or ephemeral things at that mo- 
ment, to our secret hope or joy and our despair 
too, which she might require of us.” 

“When she entered,” said Cora, “and took her 



Asphodel 107 

stand in the center of the floor, a little dog saw 
who it was and trotted out, and alarm like the 
vibration from the firebell trembled in the motes 
of the air, and the crowded room seemed to shake, 
to totter. We looked at one another in greater fear 
of her than ever before in our lives, and we would 
have run away or spoken to her first, except for a 
premonition that this time was the last, this de- 
mand the final one.” 

“It was as if the place of the smallest and the 
longest-permitted indulgence, the little common 
green, were to be invaded when the time came for 
the tyrant to die,” said Phoebe. 

The three old maids sighed gently. The grapes 
they held upon their palms were transparent in 
the light, so that the little black seeds showed 
within. 

“But when Miss Sabina spoke,” said Irene, “she 
said, ‘Give me my ’etter.’ And Miss Sabina never 
got a letter in her life. She never knew a soul be- 
yond the town. We told her there was no letter 
for her, but she cried out again, ‘Give me my 
letter!’ We told her there was none, and we went 
closer and tried to gather her to us. But she said, 
‘Give me that.’ And she took our letters out of 
our hands. ‘Your lovers!’ she said, and tore them 
in two. We let her do just as she would. But she 
was not satisfied. ‘Open up!’ she said to the post- 
mistress, and she beat upon the little communi- 



io8 


The Wide Net 


eating door. So the postmistress had to open up, 
and Miss Sabina went in to the inner part. We all 
drew close. We glanced at one another with our 
eyes grown bright, like people under a spell, for 
she was bent upon destruction.” 

“A fury and a pleasure seemed to rise inside 
her, that went out like lightning through her 
hands,” said Cora. “She threw down her stick, she 
advanced with her bare hands. She seized upon 
everything before her, and tore it to pieces. She 
dragged the sacks about, and the wastebaskets, and 
the contents she scattered like snow. Even the ink 
pad she flung against the wall, and it left a purple 
mark like a grape stain that will never wear off. 

“She was possessed then, before our eyes, as she 
could never have been possessed. She raged. She 
rocked from side to side, she danced. Miss Sa- 
bina’s arms moved like a harvester’s in the field, 
to destroy all that was in the little room. In her 
frenzy she tore all the letters to pieces, and even 
put bits in her mouth and appeared to eat them. 

“Then she stood still in the little room. She 
had finished. We had not yet moved when she lay 
toppled on the floor, her wig fallen from her head 
and her face awry like a mask. 

“ ‘A stroke.’ That is what we said, because we 
did not know how to put a name to the end of hei 
life. . . 



Asphodel 109 

Here in the bright sun where the three old 
maids sat beside their little feast, Miss Sabina’s 
was an old story, closed and complete. In some in- 
toxication of the time and the place, they recited 
it and came to the end. Now they lay stretched on 
their sides on the ground, their summer dresses 
spread out, little smiles forming on their mouths, 
their eyes half-closed, Phoebe with a juicy green 
leaf between her teeth. Above them like a dream 
rested the bright columns of Asphodel, a dream 
like the other side of their lamentations. 

All at once there was a shudder in the vines 
growing up among the columns. Out into the 
radiant light with one foot forward had stepped a 
bearded man. He stood motionless as one of the 
columns, his eyes bearing without a break upon 
the three women. He was as rude and golden as a 
lion. He did nothing, and he said nothing while 
the birds sang on. But he was naked. 

The white picnic cloth seemed to have stirred 
of itself and spilled out the half-eaten fruit and 
shattered the bottle of wine as the three old maids 
first knelt, then stood, and with a cry clung with 
their arms upon one another. As if they heard a 
sound in the vibrant silence, they were compelled 
to tarry in the very act of flight. In a soft little 
chorus of screams they waited, looking back over 
their shoulders, with their arms stretched before 
them. Then their shoes were left behind them. 



I 10 


The Wide Net 


and the three made a little line across the brook, 
and across the field in an aisle that opened among 
the mounds of wild roses. With the suddenness of 
birds they had all dropped to earth at the same 
moment and as if by magic risen on the other side 
of the fence, beside a “No Trespassing” sign. 

They stood wordless together, brushing and 
plucking at their clothes, while quite leisurely the 
old horse trotted towards them across this pasture 
that was still, for him, unexplored. 

The bearded man had not moved once. 

Cora spoke. “That was Mr. Don Mclnnis.'’ 

“It was not,” said Irene. “It was a vine in the 
wind.” 

Phoebe was bent over to pull a thorn from her 
bare foot. “But we thought he was dead.” 

“That was just as much Mr. Don as this is I,” 
said Cora, “and I would swear to that in a court 
of law.” 

“He was naked,” said Irene. 

“He was buck-naked,” said Cora. “He was as 
naked as an old goat. He must be as old as the 
hills.” 

“I didn’t look,” declared Phoebe. But there at 
one side she stood bowed and trembling as if from 
a fateful encounter. 

“No need to cry about it, Phoebe,” said Cora. 
“If it’s Mr. Don, it’s Mr. Don.” 

They consoled one another, and hitched the 



Asphodel 1 1 1 

horse, and then waited still in their little cluster, 
looking back. 

“What Miss Sabina wouldn’t have given to see 
him!’’ cried Cora at last. “What she wouldn’t have 
told him, what she wouldn’t have done to him!” 

But at that moment, as their gaze was fixed on 
the ruin, a number of goats appeared between the 
columns of Asphodel, and with a little leap started 
down the hill. Their nervous little hooves filled 
the air with a shudder and palpitation. 

“Into the buggy!” 

Tails up, the goats leapt the fence as if there 
was nothing they would rather do. 

Cora, Irene, and Phoebe were inside the open 
buggy, the whip was raised over the old horse. 

“There are more and more coming still,” cried 
Irene. 

There were billy-goats and nanny-goats, old 
goats and young, a whole thriving herd. Their 
little beards all blew playfully to the side in the 
wind of their advancement. 

“They are bound to catch up,” cried Irene. 

“Throw them something,” said Cora, who held 
the reins. 

At their feet was the basket that had been saved 
out, with a napkin of biscuits and bacon on top. 

“Here, billy-goats!” they cried. 

Leaning from the sides of the buggy, their 



112 The Wide Net 

sleeves fluttering, each one of them threw back 
biscuits with both hands. 

“Here, billy-goats!” they cried, but the little 
goats were prancing so close, their inquisitive 
noses were almost in the spokes of the wheels. 

“It won’t stop them,” said Phoebe. “They’re 
not satisfied in the least, it only makes them 
curious.” 

Cora was standing up in the open buggy, driv- 
ing it like a chariot. “Give them the little baked 
hen, then,” she said, and they threw it behind. 

The little goats stopped, with their heads 
flecked to one side, and then their horns met over 
the prize. 

There was a turn, and Asphodel was out of 
sight. The road went into a ravine and wound 
into the shade. . . . 

“We escaped,” said Cora. 

“I am thankful Miss Sabina did not live to see 
us then,” said Irene. “She would have been 
ashamed of us— barefooted and running. She 
would never have given up the little basket we 
had saved back.” 

“He ought not to be left at liberty,” cried Cora. 
She spoke soothingly to the old horse whose 
haunches still trembled, and then said, “I have a 
good mind to report him to the law!” 



Asphodel xig 

There was the great house where Miss Sabina 
had lived, high on the coming hill. 

But Phoebe laughed aloud as they made the 
curve. Her voice was soft, and she seemed to be 
still in a tender dream and an unconscious cele- 
bration— as though the picnic were not already set 
rudely in the past, but were the enduring and in- 
toxicating present, still the phenomenon, the 
golden day. 



THE WINDS 


00 ... Josie first woke up in the 
night she thought the big girls of the town were 
having a hay-ride. Choruses and cries of what she 
did not question to be joy came stealing through 
the air. At once she could see in her mind the 
source of it, the Old Natchez Trace, which was at 
the edge of her town, an old dark place where the 
young people went, and it was called both things, 
the Old Natchez Trace and Lover’s Lane. An ex- 
citement touched her and she could see in her 
imagination the leaning wagon coming, the long 
white-stockinged legs of the big girls hung down 
in a fringe on one side of the hay— then as the 
horses made a turn, the boys’ black stockings stuck 
out the other side. 

But while her heart rose longingly to the pitch 
of their delight, hands reached under her and she 
was lifted out of bed. 

“Don’t be frightened,’’ said her father’s voice 
into her ear, as if he told her a secret. 

114 



The Winds 115 

Am I old? Am I invited? she wondered, 
stricken. 

The chorus seemed to envelop her, but it tvas 
her father’s thin nightshirt she lay against in the 
dark. 

“I still say it’s a shame to wake them up.” It 
was her mother’s voice coming from the doorway, 
though strangely argumentative for so late in the 
night. 

Then they were all moving in the stirring dark- 
ness, all in their nightgovras, she and Will being 
led by their mother and father, and they in turn 
with their hands out as if they were being led by 
something invisible. They moved off the sleeping 
porch into the rooms of the house. The calls and 
laughter of the older children came closer, and 
Josie thought that at any moment their voices 
would all come together, and they would sing their 
favorite round, ‘‘Row, row, row your boat, gently 
down the stream— merrily, merrily, merrily, mer- 
rily—” 

“Don’t turn on the lights,” said her father, as 
if to keep the halls and turnings secret within. 
They passed the front bedroom; she knew it by 
the scent of her mother’s verbena sachet and the 
waist-shape of the mirror which showed in the 
dark. But they did not go in there. Her father put 
little coats about them, not their right ones. In 
her sleep she seemed to have dreamed the sounds 



ii6 The Wide Net 

of all the windows closing, upstairs and down. 
Coming out of the guest-room was a sound like a 
nest of little mice in the hay; in a flash of pride 
and elation Josie discovered it to be the empty 
bed rolling around and squeaking on its wheels. 
Then close beside them was a small musical 
tinkle against the floor, and she knew the sound; 
it was Will’s Tinker-Toy tower coming apart and 
the wooden spools and rods scattering down. 

“Oh boy!” cried Will, spreading his arms high 
in his sleep and beginning to whirl about. “The 
house is falling down!” 

“Hush,” said their mother, catching him. 

“Never mind,” said their father, smoothing 
Josie’s hair but speaking over her head. “Down- 
stairs.” 

The hour had never seemed so late in their 
house as when they made this slow and unsteady 
descent. Josie thought again of Lover’s Lane. The 
stairway gave like a chain, the pendulum shivered 
in the clock. 

They moved into the living room. The summer 
matting was down on the floor, cracked and lying 
in little ridges under their sandals, smelling of its 
stains and dust, of thin green varnish, and of its 
origin in China. The sheet of music open on the 
piano had caved in while they slept, and gleamed 
faintly like a shell in the shimmer and flow of the 
'Strange light. Josie’s drawing of the plaster-cast of 



The Winds 117 

Joan of Arc, which it had taken her all summer to 
do for her mother, had rolled itself tightly up on 
the desk like a diploma. Were they all going 
away and leave that? They wandered separately 
for a moment looking like strangers at the wicker 
chairs. The cretonne pillows smelled like wet 
stones. Outside the beseeching cries rose and fell, 
and drew nearer. The curtains hung almost still, 
like poured cream, down the windows, but on the 
table the petals shattered all at once from a bowl 
of roses. Then the chorus of wildness and delight 
seemed to come almost into their street, though 
still it held its distance, exactly like the wandering 
wagon filled with the big girls and boys at night. 

Will in his little shirt was standing straight up 
with his eyes closed, erect as a spinning top. 

“He’ll sleep through it,’’ said their mother. 
“You take him, and I’ll take the girl.’’ With a 
little push, she divided the children; she was un- 
like herself. Then their mother and father sat 
down opposite each other in the wicker chairs. 
They were waiting. 

“Is it a moonlight picnic?” asked Josie. 

“It’s a storm,” said her father. He answered her 
questions formally in a kind of deep courtesy al- 
ways, which did not depend on the day or night. 
“This is the equinox.” 

Josie gave a leap at that and ran to the front 
window and looked out. 



The Wide Net 


118 

“Josie!” 

She was looking for the big girl who lived in 
the double-house across the street. There was a 
strange fluid lightning which she now noticed for 
the first time to be filling the air, violet and rose, 
and soundless of thunder; and the eyes of the 
double-house seemed to open and shut with it. 

“Josie, come back.” 

“I see Cornelia. I see Cornelia in the equinox, 
there in her high-heeled shoes.” 

“Nonsense,” said her father. “Nonsense, Josie.” 

But she stood with her back to all of them 
and looked, saying, “I see Cornelia.” 

“How many times have I told you that you 
need not concern yourself with— Cornelia!” The 
way her mother said her name was not diminished 
now. 

“I see Cornelia. She’s on the outside. Mama, 
outside in the storm, and she’s in the equinox.” 

But her mother would not answer. 

“Josie, don’t you understand— I want to keep 
us close together,” said her father. She looked back 
at him. “Once in an equinoctial storm,” he said 
cautiously over the sleeping Will, “a man’s little 
girl was blown away from him into a haystack out 
in a field.” 

“The wind will come after Cornelia,” said 
Josie. 

But he called her back. 



The Winds 119 

The house shook as i£ a big drum were being 
beaten down the street. 

Her mother sighed. "Summer is over.” 

Josie drew closer to her, with a sense of conso- 
lation. Her mother’s dark plait was as warm as her 
arm, and she tugged at it. In the coming of thesfi 
glittering flashes and the cries and the calling 
voices of the equinox, summer was turning into 
the past. The long ago . . . 

“What is the equinox?” she asked. 

Her father made an explanation. “A seasonal 
change, you see, Josie— like the storm we had in 
winter. You remember that.” 

“No, sir,” she said. She clung to her mother. 

“She couldn’t remember it next morning,” said 
her mother, and looked at Will, who slept up 
against his father with his hands in small fists. 

“You mustn’t be frightened, Josie,” said her 
father again. “You have my word that this is a 
good strong house.” He had built it before she 
was born. But in the equinox Josie stayed with 
her mother, though the lightning stamped the 
pattern of her father’s dressing gown on the room. 

With the pulse of the lightning the wide front 
window was oftener light than dark, and the per- 
sistence of illumination seemed slowly to be tvak- 
ing something that slept longer than Josie had 
slept, for her trembling body turned under her 
mother’s hand. 



120 The Wide Net 

“Be still,” said her mother. “It’s soon over.” 

They looked at one another, parents and chil- 
dren, as if through a turning wheel of light, while 
they waited in their various attitudes against the 
wicker arabesques and the flowered cloth. When 
the wind rose still higher, both mother and father 
went all at once silent. Will’s eyes lifted open, and 
ail their gazes confronted one another. Then in a 
single flickering. Will’s face was lost in sleep. The 
house moved softly like a boat that has been 
stepped into. 

Josie lay drifting in the chair, and where she 
drifted was through the summertime, the way of 
the past. . . . 

It seemed to her that there should have been 
more time for the monkey-man— for the premoni- 
tion, the organ coming from the distance, the 
crisis in the house, “Is there a penny upstairs or 
down?”, the circle of following children, their 
downcast looks of ecstasy, and for the cold im- 
ploring hand of the little monkey. 

She woke only to hunt for signs of the fairies, 
and counted nothing but a footprint smaller than 
a bird-claw. All of the sand pile went into a castle, 
and it was a rite to stretch on her stomach and 
put her mouth to the door. “O my Queen!” and 
the coolness of the whisper would stir the grains 
of sand within. Expectant on the floor were spread 



The Winds 


121 


the sycamore leaves, Will’s fur rugs with the paws, 
head, and tail. “I am thine eternally, my Queen, 
and will serve thee always and I will be enchanted 
with thy love forever.” It was delicious to close 
both eyes and wait a length of time. Then, suppos- 
ing a mocking-bird sang in the tree, “I ask for my 
first wish, to be made to understand the tongue of 
birds.” They called her back because they had no 
memory of magic. Even a June-bug, if he were 
caught and released, would turn into a being, and 
this was forgotten in the way people summoned 
one another. 

Polishing the dark hall clock as though it was 
through her tending that the time was brought, 
the turbaned cook would be singing, “Dere’s a 
Hole in de Bottom of de Sea.” “How old will I 
get to be, Johanna?” she would ask as she ran 
through the house. “Ninety-eight.” “How old is 
Will going to be?” “Ninety-nine.” Then she was 
out the door. Her bicycle was the golden Princess, 
the name in a scroll in front. She would take 
her as early as possible. So as to touch nothing, 
to make no print on the earliness of the day, she 
rode with no hands, no feet, touching nowhere 
but the one place, moving away into the leaves, 
down the swaying black boards of the dewy alley. 
They called her back. She hung from and circled 
in order the four round posts, warm and filled 
with vreight, on the porch. Green arched ferns. 



122 


The Wide Net 

like great exhalations, spread from the stands. The 
porch was deep and wide and painted white with 
a blue ceiling, and the swing, like three sides of a 
box, was white too under its long quiet chains. 
She ran and jumped, secure that the house was 
theirs and identical with them— the pale smooth 
house seeming not to yield to any happening, with 
the dreamlike arch of the roof over the entrance 
like the curve of their upper lips. 

All the children came running and jumping 
out. She went along chewing nasturtium stems 
and sucking the honey from four-o’clock flowers, 
out for whatever figs and pomegranates came to 
hand. She floated a rose petal dry in her mouth, 
and sucked on the spirals of honeysuckle and the 
knobs of purple clover. She wore crowns. She 
added flower necklaces as the morning passed, then 
bracelets, and applied transfer-pictures to her fore- 
head and arms and legs— a basket of roses, a wind- 
mill, Columbus’s ships, ruins of Athens. But al- 
ways oblivious, off in the shade, the big girls re- 
clined or pressed their flowers in a book, or filled 
whole baking-powder cans with four-leaf-clovers 
they found. 

And watching it all from the beginning, the 
morning going by, was the double-house. This 
worn old house was somehow in disgrace, as if it 
had been born into it and could not help it. Josie 
was sorry, and sorry that it looked like a face, with 



The Winds 123 

its wide-apart upper windows, the nose-like parti- 
tion between the two sagging porches, the chim- 
neys rising in listening points at either side, and 
the roof across which the birds sat. It watched, and 
by not being what it should have been, the house 
was inscrutable. There was always some noise of 
disappointment to be heard coming from within 
—a sigh, a thud, something dropped. There were 
eight children in all that came out of it— all sizes, 
and all tow-headed, as if they might in some way 
all be kin under that roof, and they had a habit 
of arranging themselves in the barren yard in a 
little order, like an octave, and staring out across 
the street at the rest of the neighborhood— as if to 
state, in their rude way, “This is us.” Everyone 
was cruelly prevented from playing with the chil- 
dren of the double-house, no matter how in their 
humility they might change— in the course of the 
summer they would change to an entirely new set, 
with the movings in and out, though somehow 
there were always exactly eight. Cornelia, being 
nearly grown and being transformed by age, was 
not to be counted simply as a forbidden playmate 
—yet sometimes, as if she wanted to be just that, 
she chased after them, or stood in the middle while 
they ran a ring around her. 

In the morning was Cornelia’s time of prepa- 
ration. She was forever making ready. Big girls are 



The Wide Net 


124 

usually idle, but Cornelia, as occupied as a child, 
vigorously sunned her hair, or else she had always 
just washed it and came out busily to dry it. It 
was bright yellow, wonderfully silky and long, 
and she would bend her neck and toss her hair 
over her head before her face like a waterfall. And 
her hair was as constant a force as a waterfall to 
Josie, under whose eyes alone it fell. Cornelia, 
Cornelia, let down thy hair, and the King’s son 
will come climbing up. 

Josie watched her, for there was no one else to 
see, how she shook it and played with it and pres- 
ently began to brush it, over and over, out in 
public. But always through the hiding hair she 
would be looking out, steadily out, over the street. 
Josie, who followed her gaze, felt the emptiness 
of their street too, and could not understand why 
at such a moment no one could be as pitiful as 
only the old man driving slowly by in the cart, 
and no song could be as sad as his song, 

“Milk, milk, 

Buttermilk! 

Sweet potatoes— Irish potatoes— green peas— 

And buttermilk!” 

But Cornelia, instead of being moved by this 
sad moment, in which Josie’s love began to go 
toward her, stamped her foot. She was angry. 



The Winds 


125 

angry. To see her then, oppression touched Josie 
and held her quite still. Called in to dinner be- 
fore she could understand, she felt a conviction: 

I will never catch up with her. No matter how 
old I get, I will never catch up with Cornelia. She 
felt that daring and risking everything went for 
nothing; she would never take a poison wild 
strawberry into her mouth again in the hope of 
finding out the secret and the punishment of the 
world, for Cornelia, whom she might love, had 
stamped her foot, and had as good as told her, 
“You will never catch up.” All that she ran after 
in the whole summer world came to life in de- 
parture before Josie’s eyes and covered her vision 
with wings. It kept her from eating her dinner 
to think of all that she had caught or meant to 
catch before the time was gone— June-bugs in the 
banana plants to fly before breakfast on a thread, 
lightning-bugs that left a bitter odor in the palms 
of the hands, butterflies with their fierce and 
haughty faces, bees in a jar. A great tempest of 
droning and flying seemed to have surrounded 
her as she ran, and she seemed not to have moved 
without putting her hand out after something that 
flew ahead. . . . 

“There! I thought you were asleep,” said her 
father. 

She turned in her chair. The house had stirred. 



136 


The Wide Net 


“Show me their tracks,” muttered Will. “Just 
show me their tracks.” 

As though the winds were changed back into 
songs, Josie seemed to hear “Beautiful Ohio” 
slowly picked out in the key of C down the hot 
afternoon. That was Cornelia. Through the tied- 
back curtains of parlors the other big girls, with 
rats in their hair and lace insertions in their white 
dresses, practiced forever on one worn little waltz, 
up and down the street, for they took lessons. 

“Come spend the day with me.” “See who can 
eat a banana down without coming up to breathe.” 
That was Josie and her best friend, smirking at 
each other. 

They wandered at a trot, under their own para- 
sols. In the vacant field, in the center of summer, 
was a chinaberry tree, as dark as a cloud in the 
middle of the day. Its frail flowers or its bitter 
yellow balls lay trodden always over the whole 
of the ground. There was a little path that came 
through the hedge and went its way to this tree, 
and there was an old low seat built part-way 
around the trunk, on which was usually lying an 
abandoned toy of some kind. Here beside the 
nurses stood the little children, whose level eyes 
stared at the rosettes on their garters. 

“How do you do?” 

“How do you do?” 



The Winds 


1 27 

“I remembers you. Where you all think you 
goin?” 

“We don’t have to answer.” 

They went to the drugstore and treated each 
other. It was behind the latticed partition. How 
well she knew its cut-out pasteboard grapes whose 
color was put on a little to one side. Her elbows 
slid smoothly out on the cold camp marble that 
smelled like hyacinths. “You say first.” “No, you. 
First you love me last you hate me.” When they 
were full of sweets it was never too late to take 
the long way home. They ran through the park 
and drank from the fountain. Moving slowly as 
sunlight over the grass were the broad and dusty 
backs of pigeons. They stopped and made a clover- 
chain and hung it on a statue. They groveled in 
the dirt under the bandstand hunting for lost 
money, but when they found a dead bird with 
its feathers cool as rain, they ran out in the sun. 
Old Biddy Felix came to make a speech, he stood 
up and shouted with no one to listen— “The time 
flies, the time flies!”— and his arm and hand flew 
like a bat in the ragged sleeve. Walking the see- 
saw she held her breath for him. They floated 
magnolia leaves in the horse trough, themselves 
taking the part of the wind and waves, and sud- 
denly remembering who they were. They closed 
in upon the hot tamale man, fixing their fright- 
ened eyes on his lantern and on his scars. 



The Wide Net 


128 

Josie never came and she never went without 
touching the dragon— the Chinese figure in the 
garden on the corner that in biting held rain 
water in the cavern of its mouth. And never did it 
seem so still, so utterly of stone, as when all the 
children said goodbye as they always did on that 
corner, and she was left alone with it. Stone drag- 
ons opened their mouths and begged to swallow 
the day, they loved to eat the summer. It was 
painful to think of even pony-rides gobbled, the 
way they all went, the children, every one (ex- 
cept from the double-house) crammed into the 
basket with their heads stuck up like candy-al- 
monds in a treat. She backed all the way home 
from the dragon. 

But she had only to face the double-house in 
her meditations, and then she could invoke Cor- 
nelia. Thy name is Corn, and thou art like the 
ripe corn, beautiful Cornelia. And before long 
the figure of Cornelia would be sure to appear. 
She would dart forth from one old screen door 
of the double-house, trailed out by the nagging 
odor of cabbage cooking. She would have just 
bathed and dressed, for it took her so long, and 
her bright hair would be done in puffs and curls 
with a bow behind. 

Cornelia was not even a daughter in her side 
of the house, she was only a niece or cousin, there 
only by the frailest indulgence. She would come 



The Winds 29 

out with this frailty about her, come without a 
hat, without anything. Between the double-house 
and the next house was the strongest fence that 
could be built, and no ball had ever come back 
that went over it. It reached all the way out to the 
street. So Cornelia could never see if anyone might 
be coming, unless she came all the way out to the 
curb and leaned around the corner of the fence. 
Josie knew the way it would happen, and yet it 
was like new always. At the opening of the door, 
the little towheads would scatter, dash to the 
other side of the partition, disappear as if by con- 
sent. Then lightly down the steps, down the walk, 
Cornelia would come, in some kind of secrecy 
swaying from side to side, her skirts swinging 
round, and the sidewalk echoing smally to her 
pumps with the Baby Louis heels. Then, all alone, 
Cornelia would turn and gaze away down the 
street, as if she could see far, far away, in a little 
pantomime of hope and apprehension that would 
not permit Josie to stir. 

But the moment came when without meaning 
to she lifted her hand softly, and made a sign to 
Cornelia. She almost said her name. 

And Cornelia— what was it she had called back 
across the street, the flash of what word, so furious 
and yet so frail and thin? It was more furious than 
even the stamping of her foot, only a single word. 

Josie took her hand down. In a seeking humil- 



igo The Wide Net 

ity she stood there and bore her shame to attend 
Cornelia. Cornelia herself would stand still, 
haughtily still, waiting as if in pride, until a voice 
old and cracked would call her too, from the upper 
window, “Cornelia, Cornelia!” And she would 
have to turn around and go inside to the old 
woman, her hair ribbon and her sash in pale bows 
that sank down in the back. 

Then for Josie the sun on her bangs stung, and 
the pity for ribbons drove her to a wild capering 
that would end in a tumble. 

Will woke up with a yell like a wild Indian. 

“Here, let me hold him,” said his mother. Her 
voice had become soft; time had passed. She took 
Will on her lap. 

Josie opened her eyes. The lightning was flow- 
ing like the sea, and the cries were like waves at 
the door. Her parents’ faces were made up of hun- 
dreds of very still moments. 

“Tomahawks!” screamed Will. 

“Mother, don’t let him—” Josie said uneasily. 

“Never mind. You talk in your sleep too,” said 
her mother. 

She experienced a kind of shock, a small shock 
of detachment, like the time in the picture-show 
when a little blurred moment of the summer’s 
May Festival had been thrown on the screen and 
there was herself, ribbon in hand, weaving once in 



The Winds 


13 ^ 

and once out, a burning and abandoned look in 
the flicker of her face as though no one in the 
world would ever see her. 

Her mother’s hand stretched to her, but Josie 
broke away. She lay with her face hidden in the 
pillow. . . . The summer day became vast and 
opalescent with twilight. The calming and lan- 
guid smell of manure came slowly to meet her 
as she passed through the back gate and went out 
to the pasture among the mounds of wild roses. 
“Daisy,” she had only to say once, in her quietest 
voice, for she felt very near to the cow. There she 
walked, not even eating— Daisy, the small tender 
Jersey with her soft violet nose, walking and pre- 
senting her warm side. Josie bent to lean her fore- 
head against her. Here the tears from her eyes 
could go rolling down Daisy's shining coarse hairs, 
and Daisy did not move or speak but held patient, 
richly compassionate and still. . . . 

“You’re not frightened any more, are you, 
Josie?” asked her father. 

“No, sir,” she said, with her face buried. . . . 
She thought of the evening, the sunset, the stately 
game played by the flowering hedge when the va- 
cant field was theirs. “Here comes the duke a-rid- 
ing, riding, riding . . . What are you riding 
here for, here for?” while the hard iron sound of 
the Catholic Church bell tolled at twilight for un- 



132 


The Wide Net 


known people. “The fairest one that I can see 
. . . London Bridge is falling down . . . Lady 
Moon, Lady Moon, show your shoe ... I meas- 
ure my love to show you . . .” Under the fiery 
windows, how small the children were. “Fox in 
the morning!— Geese in the evening!— How many 
have you got?— More than you can ever catch!” 
The children were rose-colored too. Fading, roll- 
ing shouts cast long flying shadows behind them, 
and to watch them she stood still. Above every- 
thing in the misty blue dome of the. sky was the 
full white moon. So it is, for a true thing, round, 
she thought, and where she waited a hand seemed 
to reach around and take her under the loose- 
hanging hair, and words in her thoughts came 
shaped like grapes in her throat. She felt lonely. 
She would stop a runner. “Did you know the 
moon was round?” “I did. Annie told me last 
summer.” The game went on. But I must find 
out everything about the moon, Josie thought in 
the solemnity of evening. The moon and tides. O 
moon! O tides! I ask thee. I ask thee. Where dost 
thou rise and fall? As if it were this knowledge 
which she would allow to enter her heart, for 
which she had been keeping room, and as if it 
were the moon, known to be round, that would go 
floating through her dreams forever and never 
leave her, she looked steadily up at the moon. The 



The Winds igg 

moon looked down at her, full with all the lonely 
time to go. 

When night was about to fall, the time came to 
bring out her most precious possession, the steam- 
boat she had made from a shoe-box. In all boats 
the full-moon, half-moon, and new moon were 
cut out of each side for the windows, with tissue- 
paper through which shone the unsteady candle 
inside. She knew this journey ahead of time as if 
it were long ago, the hushing noise the boat made 
being dragged up the brick walk by the string, 
the leap it had to take across the three-cornered 
missing place over the big root, the spreading 
smell of warm wax in the evening, and the re- 
membered color of the daylight turning. Coming 
to meet the boat was another boat, shining and 
gliding as if by itself. 

Children greeted each other dreamily at twi- 
light. 

“Choo-choo!” 

“Choo-choo!” 

And something made her turn after that and 
see how Cornelia stood and looked across at them, 
all dressed in gauze, looking as if the street were 
a river flowing along between, and she did not 
speak at all. Josie understood: she could not. It 
seemed to her as she guided her warm boat under 
the brightening moon that Cornelia would have 
turned into a tree if she could, there in the front 



The Wide Net 


134 

yard of the double-house, and that the center of 
the tree would have to be seen into before her 
heart was bared, so undaunted and so filled with 
hope. . . . 

“I’ll shoot you dead!” screamed Will. 

“Hush, hush,” said their mother. 

Her father held up his hand and said, “Listen.” 

Then their house was taken to the very breast 
of the storm. 

Josie lay as still as an animal, and in panic 
thought of the future . . . the sharp day when 
she would come running out of the field holding 
the ragged stems of the quick-picked goldenrod 
and the warm flowers thrust out for a present for 
somebody. The future was herself bringing pres- 
ents, the season of gifts. When would the day come 
when the wind would fall and they would sit in 
silence on the fountain rim, their play done, and 
the boys would crack the nuts under their heels? 
If they would bring the time around once more, 
she would lose nothing that was given, she would 
hoard the nuts like a squirrel. 

For the first time in her life she thought, might 
the same wonders never come again? Was each 
wonder original and alone like the falling star, 
and when it fell did it bury itself beyond where 
you hunted it? Should she hope to see it snow 
twice, and the teacher running again to open the 



The Winds igg 

window, to hold out her black cape to catch it as it 
came down, and then going up and down the room 
quickly, quickly, to show them the snowflakes? . . . 

“Mama, where is my muff that came from Mar- 
shall Field’s?” 

It s put away, it was your grandmother’s pres- 
ent.” (But it came from those far fields.) “Are you 
dreaming?” Her mother felt of her forehead. 

“I want my little muff to hold.” She ached for it. 
“Mother, give it to me.” 

“Keep still,” said her mother softly. 

Her father came over and kissed her, and as if 
a new kiss could bring a memory, she remembered 
the night. ... It was that very night. How could 
she have forgotten and nearly let go what was clos- 
est of all? . . . 

The whole way, as they walked slowly after 
supper past the houses, and the wet of sprinkled 
lawns was rising like a spirit over the streets, the 
locusts were filling the evening with their old de- 
lirium, the swell that would rise and die away. 

In the Chautauqua when they got there, there 
was a familiar little cluster of stars beyond the hole 
in the top of the tent, but the canvas sides gave off 
sighs and stirred, and a knotted rope knocked out- 
side. It was war time where there were grown 
people, and the vases across the curtained stage 



The Wide Net 


136 

held little bunches of flags on sticks which drooped 
and wilted like flowers before their eyes. Josie 
and Will sat waiting on the limber board in the 
front row, their feet hanging into the spice-clouds 
of sawdust. The curtains parted. Waiting with 
lifted hands was a company with a sign beside 
them saying “The Trio.” All were ladies, one in 
red, one in white, and one in blue, and after one 
smile which touched them all at the same instant, 
like a match struck in their faces, they began to 
play a piano, a cornet, and a violin. 

At first, in the hushed disappointment which 
filled the Chautauqua tent in beginning moments, 
the music had been sparse and spare, like a worn 
hedge through which the hiders can be seen. But 
then, when hope had waned, there had come a lit- 
tle transition to another key, and the woman with 
the cornet had stepped forward, raising her in- 
strument. 

If morning-glories had come out of the horn in- 
stead of those sounds, Josie would not have felt a 
more astonished delight. She was pierced with 
pleasure. The sounds that so tremulously came 
from the striving of the lips were welcome and 
sweet to her. Between herself and the lifted cor- 
net there was no barrier, there was only the stale, 
expectant air of the old shelter of the tent. The 
cornetist was beautiful. There in the flame-like 
glare that was somehow shadowy, she had come 



The Winds 


137 

from far away, and the long times of the world 
seemed to be about her. She wzs draped heavily 
in white, shaded with blue, like a Queen, and she 
stood braced and looking upward like the figure- 
head on a Viking ship. As the song drew out, 
Josie could see the slow appearance of a little vein 
in her cheek. Her closed eyelids seemed almost to 
whir and yet to rest motionless, like the wings of 
a humming-bird, when she reached the high note. 
The breaths she took were fearful, and a little 
medallion of some kind lifted each time on her 
breast. Josie listened in mounting care and sus- 
pense, as if the performance led in some direc- 
tion away— as if a destination were being shown 
her. 

And there not far away, with her face all wild, 
was Cornelia, listening too, and still alone. In 
some alertness Josie turned and looked back for 
her parents, but they were far back in the crowd; 
they did not see her, they were not listening. She 
was let free, and turning back to the cornetist, 
who was transfixed beneath her instrument, she 
bent gently forward and closed her hands together 
over her knees. 

“Josie!” whispered Will, prodding her. 

“That's my name.” But she would not talk to 

him. 

She had come home tired, in a dream. But aftei 
the light had been turned out on the sleeping 



The Wide Net 


138 

porch, and the kisses of her family were put on 
her cheek, she had not fallen asleep. She could 
see out from the high porch that the town was 
dark, except where beyond the farthest rim of 
trees the old cotton-seed mill with its fiery smoke- 
stack and its lights forever seemed an inland boat 
that waited for the return of the sea. It came over 
her how the beauty of the world had come with 
its sign and stridden through their town that 
night; and it seemed to her that a proclamation 
had been made in the last high note of the lady 
trumpeteer when her face had become set in its 
passion, and that after that there would be no 
more waiting and no more time left for the one 
who did not take heed and follow. . . . 

There was a breaking sound, the first thunder. 

“You see!” said her father. He struck his palms 
together, and it thundered again. “It’s over.” 

“Back to bed, every last one of you,” said her 
mother, as if it had all been something done to 
tease her, and now her defiance had won. She 
turned a light on and off. 

“Pow!” cried Will, and then toppled into his 
father’s arms, and was carried up the stairs. 

From then on there was only the calm steady 
falling of rain. 

Josie was placed in her winter-time bed. They 
would think her asleep, for they had all kissed 



The Winds i^g 

one another in a kind of triumph to do for the 
rest of the night. The rain was a sleeper’s sound. 
She listened for a time to a tapping that came 
at her window, like a plea from outside. . . . 
From whom? She could not know. Cornelia, sweet 
summertime, the little black monkey, poor Biddy 
Felix, the lady with the horn whose lips were 
parted? Had they after all asked something of 
her? There, outside, was all that was wild and 
beloved and estranged, and all that would beckon 
and leave her, and all that was beautiful. She 
wanted to follow, and by some metamorphosis 
she would take them in— all— every one. . . . 

The first thing next morning Josie ran out- 
doors to see what signs the equinox had left. The 
sun was shining. Will was already out, gruffly ex- 
horting himself, digging in his old hole to China. 
The double-house across the street looked as if 
its old age had come upon it at last. Nobody was 
to be seen at the windows, and not a child was 
near. The whole facade drooped and gave way 
in the soft light, like the face of an old woman 
fallen asleep in church. In all the trees in all the 
yards the leaves were slowly dropping, one by one, 
as if in breath after breath. 

There at Josie’s foot on the porch was some- 
thing. It was a folded bit of paper, wet and pale 
and thin, trembling in the air and clinging to the 



The Wide Net 


HO 

pedestal of the column, as though this were the 
residue of some great wave that had rolled upon 
the rock and then receded for another time. It was 
a fragment of a letter. It was written not properly 
in ink but in indelible pencil, and so its message 
had not been washed away as it might have been. 

Josie knelt down and took the paper in both 
hands, and without moving read ail that was there. 
Then she went to her room and put it into her 
most secret place, the little drawstring bag that 
held her dancing shoes. The name Cornelia was 
on it, and it said, “O my darling I have waited 
so long when are you coming for me? Never a day 
or a night goes by that I do not ask When? When? 
When?” . . . 



THE PURPLE HAT 


Cyx WAS in a bar, a quiet little 
hole in the wall. It was four o’clock in the after- 
noon. Beyond the open door the rain fell, the 
heavy color of the sea, in air where the sunlight 
was still suspended. Its watery reflection lighted 
the room, as a room might have lighted a mouse- 
hole. It was in New Orleans. 

There was a bartender whose mouth and eyes 
curved downward from the divide of his baby- 
pink nose, as if he had combed them down, like 
his hair; he always just said nothing. The seats 
at his bar were black oilcloth knobs, worn and 
smooth and as much alike as six pebbles on the 
beach, and yet the two customers had chosen very 
particularly the knobs they would sit on. They 
had come in separately out of the wet, and had 
each chosen an end stool, and now sat with the 
length of the little bar between them. The bar- 
tender obviously did not know either one, he 

rested his eyes by closing them. . . . 

141 



The Wide Net 


142 

The fat customer, with a rather affable look 
about him, said he would have a rye. The un- 
shaven young man with the shaking hands, though 
he had come in first, only looked fearfully at a 
spot on the counter before him until the bar- 
tender, as if he could hear silent prayer, covered 
the spot with a drink. 

The fat man swallowed, and began at once to 
look a little cosy and prosperous. He seemed ready 
to speak, if the moment came. . . . 

There was a calm roll of thunder, no more than 
a shifting of the daily rain clouds over Royal 
Street. 

Then— “Rain or shine,” the fat man spoke, 
“she’ll be there.” 

The bartender stilled his cloth on the bar, as 
if mopping up made a loud noise, and waited. 

“Why, at the Palace of Pleasure,” said the fat 
man. He was really more heavy and solid than he 
was simply fat. 

The bartender leaned forward an inch on his 
hand. 

“The lady will be at the Palace of Pleasure,” 
said the fat man in his drowsy voice. “The lady 
with the purple hat.” 

Then the fat man turned on the black knob, 
put his elbow on the counter, and rested his cheek 
on his hand, where he could see all the way down 
the bar. For a moment his eyes seemed dancing 



The Purple Hat 143 

there, above one of those hands so short and so 
plump that you are always counting the fingers 
. . . really helpless-looking hands for so large a 
man. 

The young man stared back without much 
curiosity, looking at the affable face much the 
way you stare out at a little station where your 
train is passing through. His hand alone found its 
place on his small glass. 

“Oh, the hat she wears is a creation,” said the 
fat man, almost dreamily, yet not taking his eyes 
from the young man. It was strange that he did 
not once regard the bartender, who after all had 
done him the courtesy of asking a polite question 
or two, or at least the same as asked. “A great and 
ancient and bedraggled purple hat.” 

There was another rumble overhead. Here they 
seemed to inhabit the world that was just beneath 
the thunder. The fat man let it go by, lifting his 
little finger like a pianist. Then he went on. 

“Sure, she’s one of those thousands of middle- 
aged women who come every day to the Palace, 
would not be kept away by anything on earth. . . . 
Most of them are dull enough, drab old creatures, 
all of them, walking in with their big black purses 
held wearily by the handles like suitcases packed 
for a trip. No one has ever been able to find out 
how all these old creatures can leave their lives 
at home like that to gamble . . . what their hus- 



The Wide Net 


144 

bands think . . . who keeps the house in order 
. . . who pays. ... At any rate, she is one like 
the rest, except for the hat, and except for the 
young man that always meets her there, from year 
to year. . . . And I think she is a ghost.” 

“Ghost!” said the bartender— noncommittally, 
just as he might repeat an order. 

“For this reason,” said the fat man. 

A reminiscent tone came into his voice which 
seemed to put the silent thin young man on his 
guard. He made the beginning of a gesture toward 
the bottle. The bartender was already filling his 
glass. 

“In thirty years she has not changed,” said the 
fat man. “Neither has she changed her hat. Dear 
God, how the moths must have hungered for that 
hat. But she has kept it in full bloom on her head, 
that monstrosity— purple, too, as if she were beau- 
tiful in the bargain. She has not aged, but she 
keeps her middle-age. The young man, on the 
other hand, must change— I’m sure he’s not al- 
ways the same young man. For thirty years,” he 
said, “she’s met a young man at the dice table 
every afternoon, rain or shine, at five o’clock, and 
gambles till midnight and tells him goodbye, and 
still it looks to be always the same young man— 
always young, but a little stale, a little tired . . . 
the smudge of a sideburn. . . . She finds them, 
she does. She picks them. Where I don’t know. 



The Purple Hat 145 

unless New Orleans, as I’ve always had a guess, is 
the birthplace of ready-made victims.” 

Who are you?” asked the young man. It was 
the sort of idle voice in which the greatest wild- 
ness sometimes speaks out at last in a quiet bar. 

In the Palace of Pleasure there is a little cat- 
walk along beneath the dome,” said the fat man. 
His rather small, mournful lips, such as big men 
often have, now parted in a vague smile. “I am 
the man whose eyes look out over the gambling 
room. I am the armed man that everyone knows 
to be watching, at all they do. I don’t believe my 
position is dignified by a title.” Nevertheless, he 
looked rather pleased. “I have watched her every 
day for thirty years and I think she is a ghost. I 
have seen her murdered twice,” said the fat man. 

The bartender’s enormous sad black eyebrows 
raised, like hoods on baby-carriages, and showed 
his round eyes. 

The fat man lifted his other fat little hand and 
studied, or rather showed off, a ruby ring that he 
wore on his little finger. “That carpet, if you have 
ever been there, in the Palace of Pleasure, is red, 
but from up above, it changes and gives off light 
between the worn criss-crossing of the aisles like 
the facets of a well-cut ruby,” he said, speaking in 
a declarative manner as if he had been waiting 
for a chance to deliver this enviable comparison. 
“The tables and chandeliers are far down below 



The Wide Net 


146 

me, points in its interior. . . . Life in the ruby. 
And yet somehow all that people do is clear and 
lucid and authentic there, as if it were magnified 
in the red lens, not made smaller. I can see every- 
thing in the world from my catwalk. You mustn’t 
think I brag. . . .” He looked all at once from 
his ring straight at the young man’s face, which 
was as drained and white as ever, expressionless, 
with a thin drop of whisky running down his 
cheek where he had blundered with his glass. 

“I have seen this old and disgusting creature in 
her purple hat every night, quite plainly, for 
thirty years, and to my belief she has been mur- 
dered twice. I suppose it will take the third time.” 
He himself smoothly tossed down a drink. 

The bartender leaned over and filled the young 
man’s glass. 

“It’s within the week, within the month, that 
she comes back. Once she was shot point-blank— 
that was the first time. The young man was hot- 
headed then. I saw her carried out bleeding from 
the face. We hush those things, you know, at the 
Palace. There are no signs afterwards, no trouble. 
. . . The soft red carpet . . . Within the month 
she was back — with her young man meeting her at 
the table just after five.” 

The bartender put his head to^ one side. 

“The only good of shooting her was, it made a 
brief period of peace there,” said the fat man. “I 



The Purple Hat 147 

wouldn’t scoff, if I were you.” He did seem the 
least bit fretted by that kind of interruption. 

“The second time took into account the hat,” 
he went on. And I do think her young man was 
on his way toward the right idea that time, the 
secret. I think he had learned something. Or he 
wanted it all kept more quiet, or he was a new 
one. ...” He looked at the young man at the 
other end of the bar with a patient, compassion- 
ate expression, or it may have been the inevitably 
tender contour of his round cheeks. “It is time 
that I told you about the hat. It is quite a hat. 
A great, wide, deep hat such as has no fashion and 
never knew there was fashion and change. It 
serves her to come out in winter and summer. 
Those are old plush flowers that trim it— roses? 
Poppies? A man wouldn’t know easily. And you 
would never know if you only met her wearing 
the hat that a little glass vial with a plunger helps 
decorate the crown. You would have to see it 
from above. ... Or you would need to be the 
young man sitting beside her at the gambling 
table when, at some point in the evening, she 
takes the hat off and lays it carefully in her lap, 
under the table. . . . Then you might notice the 
little vial, and be attracted to it and wish to take 
it out and examine it at your pleasure off in the 
washroom— to admire the handle, for instance. 



148 The Wide Net 

which is red glass, like the petal of an artificial 
flower.” 

The bartender suddenly lifted his hand to his 
mouth as if it held a glass, and yawned into it. 
The thin young man hit the counter faintly with 
his tumbler. 

“She does more than just that, though,” said 
the fat man with a little annoyance in his soft 
voice. “Perhaps I haven’t explained that she is a 
lover, too, or did you know that she would be? It 
is hard to make it clear to a man who has never 
been out to the Palace of Pleasure, but only serves 
drinks all day behind a bar. You see . . .” And 
now, lowering his voice a little, he deliberately 
turned from the young man and would not look 
at him any more. But the young man looked at 
him, without lifting his drink— as if there were 
something hypnotic and irresistible even about 
his side face with the round, hiding cheek. 

“Try to imagine,” the fat man was saying gently 
to the bartender, who looked back at him. “At 
some point in the evening she always takes off the 
purple hat. Usually it is very late . . . when it 
is almost time for her to go. The young man who 
has come to the rendezvous watches her until she 
removes it, tvatches her hungrily. Is it in order to 
see her hair? Well, most ghosts that are lovers, 
and lovers that are ghosts, have the long thick 



The Purple Hat 149 

black hair that you would expect, and hers is no 
exception to the rule. It is pinned up, of course- 
in her straggly vague way. But the young man 
doesn’t look at it after all. He is enamoured of 
her hat— her ancient, battered, outrageous hat 
with the awful plush flowers. She lays it down 
below the level of the table there, on her shabby 
old lap, and he caresses it. . . . Well, I suppose 
in this town there are stranger forms of love than 
that, and who are any of us to say what ways peo- 
ple may not find to love? She herself, you know, 
seems perfectly satisfied with it. And yet she must 
not be satisfied, being a ghost. . . . Does it mat- 
ter how she seeks her desire? I am sure she speaks 
to him, in a sort of purr, the purr that is used for 
talking in that room, and the young man does not 
know what she seeks of him, and she is leading 
him on, all the time. What does she say? I do not 
know. But believe me . . . she leads him on. . . 

The bartender leaned on one hand. He had an 
oddly cheerful look by this time, as if with strange 
and sad things to come his way his outlook became 
more vivacious. 

“To look at, she has a large-sized head,” said 
the fat man, pushing his lip with his short finger. 
“Well, it is more that her face spreads over such 
a wide area. Like the moon’s. . . . Much as I 
have studied her, I can only say that all her fea- 



I n;o 


The Wide Net 


tures seem to have moved further apart from each 
other— expanded, if you see what I mean.” He 
brought his hands together and parted them. 

The bartender leaned over closer, staring at the 
fat man’s face interestedly. 

“But I can never finish telling you about the 
hat!” the fat man cried, and there was a little sigh 
somewhere in the room, very young, like a child’s. 
‘Of course, to balance the weight of the attractive 
little plunger, there is an object to match on the 
other side of this marvelous old hat— a jeweled 
hatpin, no less. Of course the pin is there to keep 
the hat safe! Each time she takes off the hat, she 
has first to remove the hatpin. You can see her do 
it every night of the world. It comes out a regular 
little flashing needle, ten or twelve inches long, 
and after she has taken the hat off, she sticks the 
pin back through.” 

The bartender pursed his lips. 

“Wliat about the second time she was mur- 
dered? Have you wondered how that was done?” 
The fat man turned back to face the young fel- 
low, whose feet drove about beneath the stool. 
“The young lover had learned something, or come 
to some conclusion, you see,” he said. “It was 
obvious all the time, of course, that by spinning 
the brim ever so easily as it rested on the lady’s 
not over-sensitive old knees, it would be possible 



The Purple Hat 151 

to remove the opposite ornament. There was not 
the slightest fuss or outcry when the pin entered 
between the ribs and pierced the heart. No one 
saw it done . . . except for me, naturally— I had 
been watching for it, more or less. The old crea- 
ture, who had been winning at that, simply folded 
all softly in on herself, like a circus tent being 
taken down after the show, if you’ve ever seen the 
sight. I saw her carried out again. It takes three 
big boys every time, she is so heavy, and one of 
them always has the presence of mind to cover 
her piously with her old purple hat for the occa- 
sion.’’ 

The bartender shut his eyes distastefully. 

“If you had ever been to the Palace of Pleasure, 
you’d know it all went completely as usual— peo- 
ple at the tables never turn around,’’ said the fat 
man. 

The bartender ran his hand down the side of 
his sad smooth hair. 

“The trouble lies, you see,” said the fat man, 
“with the young lover. You are he, let us say. . . .” 
But he turned from the drinking young man, and 
it was the bartender who was asked to be the lover 
for the moment. “After a certain length of time 
goes by, and love has blossomed, and the hat, the 
purple hat, is thrilling to the touch of your hand 
—you can no longer be sure about the little vial. 
There in privacy you may find it to be empty. It 



152 The Wide Net 

is her coquettishness, you see. She leads you on. 
You are never to know whether . . 

The chimes of St. Louis Cathedral went som- 
nambulantly through the air. It was five o’clock. 
The young man had risen somehow to his feet. 
He moved out of the bar and disappeared in the 
rain of the alley. On the floor where his feet had 
been were old cigarette stubs that had been kicked 
and raked into a little circle— a rosette, a clock, 
a game wheel, or something. . . . 

The bartender put a cork in the bottle. 

“I have to go myself,” said the fat man. 

Once more the bartender raised his great 
hooded brows. For a moment their eyes met. The 
fat man pulled out an enormous roll of worn 
bills. He paid in full for all drinks and added a 
nice tip. 

“Up on the catwalk you get the feeling now 
and then that you could put out your finger and 
make a change in the universe.” His great shoul- 
ders lifted. 

The bartender, with his hands full of cash, 
leaned confidentially over the bar. “Is she a real 
ghost?” he asked, in a real whisper. 

There was a pause, which the thunder filled. 

“I’ll let you know tomorrow,” said the fat man, 

Then he too was gone. 



C_yoLOMON carried Liwie twenty- 
one miles away from her home when he married 
her. He carried her away up on the Old Natche? 
Trace into the deep country to live in his house. 
She was sixteen— an only girl, then. Once people 
said he thought nobody would ever come along 
there. He told her himself that it had been a long 
time, and a day she did not know about, since that 
road was a traveled road with people coming and 
going. He was good to her, but he kept her in the 
house. She had not thought that she could not get 
back. Where she came from, people said an old 
man did not want anybody in the world to ever 
find his wife, for fear they would steal her back 
from him. Solomon asked her before he took her. 
“Would she be happy?’’-very dignified, for he 
was a colored man that owned his land and had it 
written down in the courthouse; and she said, 
“Yes, sir,” since he was an old man and she was 
YOung and jnst listened and answered. He asked 



154 The Wide Net 

her, if she was choosing winter, would she pine 
for spring, and she said, “No indeed.” Whatever 
she said, always, was because he was an old man 
. . . while nine years went by. All the time, he 
got old, and he got so old he gave out. At last he 
slept the whole day in bed, and she was young 
still. 

It was a nice house, inside and outside both. In 
the first place, it had three rooms. The front room 
was papered in holly paper, with green palmettos 
from the swamp spaced at careful intervals over 
the walls. There was fresh newspaper cut with 
fancy borders on the mantel-shelf, on which were 
propped photographs of old or very young men 
printed in faint yellow— Solomon’s people. Solo- 
mon had a houseful of furniture. There was a 
double settee, a tall scrolled rocker and an organ 
in the front room, all around a three-legged table 
with a pink marble top, on which was set a lamp 
with three gold feet, besides a jelly glass with 
pretty hen feathers in it. Behind the front room, 
the other room had the bright iron bed with the 
polished knobs like a throne, in which Solomon 
slept all day. There were snow-white curtains of 
wiry lace at the window, and a lace bed-spread 
belonged on the bed. But what old Solomon slept 
so sound under was a big feather-stitched piece- 
quilt in the pattern “Trip Around the World,’' 
which had twenty-one different colors, four hun- 



Livvie 155 

dred and forty pieces, and a thousand yards of 
thread, and that was what Solomon’s mother 
made in her life and old age. There was a table 
holding the Bible, and a trunk with a key. On 
the wall were two calendars, and a diploma from 
somewhere in Solomon’s family, and under that 
Livvie’s one possession was nailed, a picture of 
the little white baby of the family she worked 
for, back in Natchez before she was married. Go- 
ing through that room and on to the kitchen, 
there was a big wood stove and a big round table 
always with a wet top and with the knives and 
forks in one jelly glass and the spoons in another, 
and a cut-glass vinegar bottle between, and going 
out from those, many shallow dishes of pickled 
peaches, fig preserves, watermelon pickles and 
blackberry jam always sitting there. The churn 
sat in the sun, the doors of the safe were always 
both shut, and there were four baited mouse-traps 
in the kitchen, one in every comer. 

The outside of Solomon’s house looked nice. 
It was not painted, but across the porch was an 
even balance. On each side there was one easy 
chair with high springs, looking out, and a fem 
basket hanging over it from the ceiling, and a 
dishpan of zinnia seedlings growing at its foot on 
the floor. By the door was a plow-wheel, just a 
pretty iron circle, nailed up on one wall and a 
square mirror on the other, a turquoise-blue 



The Wide Net 


156 

comb stuck up in the frame, with the wash stand 
beneath it. On the door was a wooden knob with 
a pearl in the end, and Solomon’s black hat hung 
on that, if he was in the house. 

Out front was a clean dirt yard with every ves- 
tige of grass patiently uprooted and the ground 
scarred in deep whorls from the strike of Livvie’s 
broom. Rose bushes with tiny blood-red roses 
blooming every month grew in threes on either 
side of the steps. On one side was a peach tree, 
on the other a pomegranate. Then coming around 
up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez 
Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees 
with every branch of them ending in a colored 
bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell 
from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, 
but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in 
trees, and she was familiar from the time she was 
born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits 
from coming into the house— by luring them in- 
side the colored bottles, where they cannot get out 
again. Solomon had made the bottle trees with 
his own hands over the nine years, in labor 
amounting to about a tree a year, and without a 
sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for 
he took as much pride in his precautions against 
spirits coming in the house as he took in the 
house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees 
looked prettier than the house did. 



Livvie 


157 

It was a nice house. It was in a place where the 
days would go by and surprise anyone that they 
were over. The lamplight and the firelight would 
shine out the door after dark, over the still and 
breathing country, lighting the roses and the bot- 
tle trees, and all was quiet there. 

But there was nobody, nobody at all, not even 
a white person. And if there had been anybody, 
Solomon would not have let Livvie look at them, 
just as he would not let her look at a field hand, 
or a field hand look at her. There was no house 
near, except for the cabins of the tenants that 
were forbidden to her, and there was no house 
as far as she had been, stealing away down the 
still, deep Trace. She felt as if she waded a river 
when she went, for the dead leaves on the ground 
reached as high as her knees, and when she was 
all scratched and bleeding she said it was not like 
a road that went anywhere. One day, climbing up 
the high bank, she had found a graveyard without 
a church, with ribbon-grass growing about the 
foot of an angel (she had climbed up because she 
thought she saw angel wings), and in the sun, 
trees shining like burning flames through the 
great caterpillar nets which enclosed them. Scarey 
thistles stood looking like the prophets in the 
Bible in Solomon’s house. Indian paint brushes 
grew over her head, and the mourning dove made 
the only sound in the world. Oh for a stirring of 



The Wide Net 


158 

the leaves, and a breaking of the nets! But not by 
a ghost, prayed Livvie, jumping down the bank. 
After Solomon took to his bed, she never went 
out, except one more time. 

Livvie knew she made a nice girl to wait on 
anybody. She fixed things to eat on a tray like a 
surprise. She could keep from singing when she 
ironed, and to sit by a bed and fan away the flies, 
she could be so still she could not hear herself 
breathe. She could clean up the house and never 
drop a thing, and wash the dishes without a sound, 
and she would step outside to churn, for churn- 
ing sounded too sad to her, like sobbing, and if 
it made her home-sick and not Solomon, she did 
not think of that. 

But Solomon scarcely opened his eyes to see 
her, and scarcely tasted his food. He was not sick 
or paralyzed or in any pain that he mentioned, 
but he was surely wearing out in the body, and 
no matter what nice hot thing Livvie would bring 
him to taste, he would only look at it now, as if 
he were past seeing how he could add anything 
more to himself. Before she could beg him, he 
would go fast asleep. She could not surprise him 
any more, if he would not taste, and she was 
afraid that he was never in the world going to 
taste another thing she brought him— and so how 
could he last? 



Livvie 


159 

But one morning it was breakfast time and she 
cooked his eggs and grits, carried them in on a 
tray, and called his name. He was sound asleep. 
He lay in a dignified way with his watch beside 
him, on his back in the middle of the bed. One 
hand drew the quilt up high, though it was the 
first day of spring. Through the white lace cur- 
tains a little puffy wind was blowing as if it came 
from round cheeks. All night the frogs had sung 
out in the swamp, like a commotion in the room, 
and he had not stirred, though she lay wide awake 
and saying “Shh, frogs!” for fear he would mind 
them. 

He looked as if he would like to sleep a little 
longer, and so she put back the tray and waited a 
little. When she tiptoed and stayed so quiet, she 
surrounded herself with a little reverie, and some- 
times it seemed to her when she was so stealthy 
that the quiet she kept was for a sleeping baby, 
and that she had a baby and was its mother. When 
she stood at Solomon’s bed and looked down at 
him, she would be thinking, “He sleeps so well,” 
and she would hate to wake him up. And in some 
other way, too, she was afraid to wake him up be- 
cause even in his sleep he seemed to be such a 
strict man. 

Of course, nailed to the wall over the bed- 
only she would forget who it was— there was a 
picture of him when he was young. Then he had 



The Wide Net 


160 

a fan of hair over his forehead like a king’s crown. 
Now his hair lay down on his head, the spring 
had gone out of it. Solomon had a lightish face, 
with eyebrows scattered but rugged, the way 
privet grows, strong eyes, with second sight, a 
strict mouth, and a little gold smile. This was the 
way he looked m his clothes, but in bed in the 
daytime he looked like a difEerent and smaller 
man, even when he was wide awake, and holding 
the Bible. He looked like somebody kin to him- 
self. And then sometimes when he lay in sleep 
and she stood fanning the flies away, and the light 
came in, his face was like new, so smooth and 
clear that it was like a glass of jelly held, to the 
window, and she could almost look through his 
forehead and see what he thought. 

She fanned him and at length he opened his 
eyes and spoke her name, but he would not taste 
the nice eggs she had kept warm under a pan. 

Back in the kitchen she ate heartily, his break- 
fast and hers, and looked out the open door at 
what went on. The whole day, and the whole 
night before, she had felt the stir of spring close 
to her. It was as present in the house as a young 
man would be. The moon was in the last quarter 
and outside they were turning the sod and plant- 
ing peas and beans. Up and down the red fields, 
over which smoke from the brush-burning hung 
showing like a little skirt of sky, a white horse 



Liwie i6i 

and a white mule pulled the plow. At intervals 
hoarse shouts came through the air and roused 
her as if she dozed neglectfully in the shade, and 
they were telling her, “Jump up!” She could see 
how over each ribbon of field were moving men 
and girls, on foot and mounted on mules, with 
hats set on their heads and bright with tall hoes 
and forks as if they carried streamers on them 
and were going to some place on a journey— and 
how as if at a signal now and then they would 
all start at once shouting, hollering, cajoling, call- 
ing and answering back, running, being leaped on 
and breaking away, flinging to earth with a shout 
and lying motionless in the trance of twelve 
o’clock. The old women came out of the cabins 
and brought them the food they had ready for 
them, and then all worked together, spread evenly 
out. The little children came too, like a bouncing 
stream overflowing the fields, and set upon the 
men, the women, the dogs, the rushing birds, and 
the wave-like rows of earth, their little voices al- 
most too high to be heard. In the middle distance 
like some white and gold towers were the hay- 
stacks, with black cows coming around to eat then 
edges. High above everything, the wheel of fields, 
house, and cabins, and the deep road surrounding 
like a moat to keep them in, was the turning sky, 
blue with long, far-flung white mare’s-tail clouds, 
serene and still as high flames. And sound asleep 



The Wide Net 


162 

while all this went around him that was his, Solo- 
mon was like a little still spot in the middle. 

Even in the house the earth was sweet to 
breathe. Solomon had never let Livvie go any 
farther than the chicken house and the well. But 
what if she would walk now into the heart of the 
fields and take a hoe and work until she fell 
stretched out and drenched with her efforts, like 
other girls, and laid her cheek against the laid- 
open earth, and shamed the old man with her 
humbleness and delight? To shame him! A cruel 
wish could come in uninvited and so fast while 
she looked out the back door. She washed the 
dishes and scrubbed the table. She could hear the 
cries of the little lambs. Her mother, that she had 
not seen since her wedding day, had said one 
time, “I rather a man be anything, than a woman 
be mean.” 

So all morning she kept tasting the chicken 
broth on the stove, and when it was right she 
poured off a nice cup-ful. She carried it in to 
Solomon, and there he lay having a dream. Now 
what did he dream about? For she saw him sigh 
gently as if not to disturb some whole thing he 
held round in his mind, like a fresh egg. So even 
an old man dreamed about something pretty. Did 
he dream of her, while his eyes were shut and 
sunken, and his small hand with the wedding ring 
curled close in sleep around the quilt? He might 



Livvie 1 63 

be dreaming of what time it was, for even through 
his sleep he kept track of it like a clock, and knew 
how much of it went by, and waked up knowing 
where the hands were even before he consulted 
the silver watch that he never let go. He would 
sleep with the watch in his palm, and even hold- 
ing it to his cheek like a child that loves a play- 
thing. Or he might dream of journeys and travels 
on a steamboat to Natchez. Yet she thought he 
dreamed of her; but even while she scrutinized 
him, the rods of the foot of the bed seemed to rise 
up like a rail fence between them, and she could 
see that people never could be sure of anything 
as long as one of them was asleep and the other 
awake. To look at him dreaming of her when he 
might be going to die frightened her a little, as 
if he might carry her with him that way, and she 
wanted to run out of the room. She took hold of 
the«bed and held on, and Solomon opened his eyes 
and called her name, but he did not want any- 
thing. He would not taste the good broth. 

Just a little after that, as she was taking up the 
ashes in the front room for the last time in the 
year, she heard a sound. It was somebody coming. 
She pulled the curtains together and looked 
through the slit. 

Coming up the path under the bottle trees was 
a white lady. At first she looked young, but then 



x 64 The Wide Net 

she looked old. Marvelous to see, a little car stood 
steaming like a kettle out in the field-track— it 
had come without a road. 

Livvie stood listening to the long, repeated 
knockings at the door, and after a while she 
opened it just a little. The lady came in through 
the crack, though she was more than middle-sized 
and wore a big hat. 

“My name is Miss Baby Marie,” she said. 

Livvie gazed respectfully at the lady and at the 
little suitcase she was holding close to her by the 
handle until the proper moment. The lady’s eyes 
were running over the room, from palmetto to 
palmetto, but she was saying, “I live at home . . . 
out from Natchez . . . and get out and show 
these pretty cosmetic things to the white people 
and the colored people both ... all around 
. . . years and years. . . . Both shades of powder 
and rouge. . . . It’s the kind of work a girl «an 
do and not go clear ’way from home ...” And 
the harder she looked, the more she talked. Sud- 
denly she turned up her nose and said, “It is not 
Christian or sanitary to put feathers in a vase,” 
and then she took a gold key out of the front of 
her dress and began unlocking the locks on her 
suitcase. Her face drew the light, the way it was 
covered with intense white and red, with a little 
patty-cake of white between the wrinkles by her 
upper lip. Little red tassels of hair bobbed under 



Liwie 


165 

the rusty wires of her picture-hat, as with an air of 
triumph and secrecy she now drew open her little 
suitcase and brought out bottle after bottle and 
jar after jar, which she put down on the table, 
the mantel-piece, the settee, and the organ. 

“Did you ever see so many cosmetics in your 
life?” cried Miss Baby Marie. 

“No’m,” Liwie tried to say, but the cat had her 
tongue. 

“Have you ever applied cosmetics?” asked Miss 
Baby Marie next. 

“No’m,” Liwie tried to say. 

“Then look!” she said, and pulling out the last 
thing of all, “Try this!” she said. And in her hand 
was unclenched a golden lipstick which popped 
open like magic. A fragrance came out of it like 
incense, and Liwie cried out suddenly, “China- 
berry flowers!” 

Her hand took the lipstick, and in an instant 
she was carried away in the air through the spring, 
and looking down with a half-drowsy smile from a 
purple cloud she saw from above a chinaberry 
tree, dark and smooth and neatly leaved, neat as 
a guinea hen in the dooryard, and there was her 
home that she had left. On one side of the tree 
was her mama holding up her heavy apron, and 
she could see it was loaded with ripe figs, and 
on the other side was her papa holding a fish-pole 
over the pond, and she could see it transparently, 



i66 


The Wide Net 


the little clear fishes swimming up to the brim. 

“Oh, no, not chinaberry flowers— secret ingre- 
dients,” said Miss Baby Marie. “My cosmetics 
have secret ingredients— not chinaberry flowers.” 

“It’s purple,” Livvie breathed, and Miss Baby 
Marie said, “Use it freely. Rub it on.” 

Livvie tiptoed out to the wash stand on the 
front porch and before the mirror put the paint 
on her mouth. In the wavery surface her face 
danced before her like a flame. Miss Baby Marie 
followed her out, took a look at what she had 
done, and said, “That’s it.” 

Livvie tried to say “Thank you” without mov- 
ing her parted lips where the paint lay so new. 

By now Miss Baby Marie stood behind Livvie 
and looked in the mirror over her shoulder, twist- 
ing up the tassels of her hair. “The lipstick I can 
let you have for only two dollars,” she said, close 
to her neck. 

“Lady, but I don’t have no money, never did 
have,” said Livvie. 

“Oh, but you don’t pay the first time. I make 
another trip, that’s the way I do. I come back 
again— later.” 

“Oh,” said Livvie, pretending she understood 
everything so as to please the lady. 

“But if you don’t take it now, this may be the 
last time I’ll call at your house,” said Miss Baby 
Marie sharply. “It’s far away from anywhere. I’ll 



hivvie 1 6'7 

tell you that. You don’t live close to anywhere.” 

Yes m. My husband, he keep the money,” said 
Livvie, trembling. “He is strict as he can be. He 
don’t know yon walk in here— Miss Baby Marie!” 

“Where is he?” 

“Right now, he in yonder sound asleep, an old 
man. I wouldn’t ever ask him for anything.” 

Miss Baby Marie took back the lipstick and 
packed it up. She gathered up the jars for both 
black and white and got them all inside the suit- 
case, with the same little fuss of triumph with 
which she had brought them out. She started 
away. 

“Goodbye,” she said, making herself look grand 
from the back, but at the last minute she turned 
around in the door. Her old hat wobbled as she 
whispered, “Let me see your husband.” 

Livvie obediently went on tiptoe and opened 
the door to the other room. Miss Baby Marie 
came behind her and rose on her toes and looked 
in. 

“My, what a little tiny old, old man!” she whis- 
pered, clasping her hands and shaking her head 
over them. “What a beautiful quilt! What a tiny 
old, old man!” 

“He can sleep like that all day,” whispered Liv- 
vie proudly. 

They looked at him awhile so fast asleep, and 



i68 The Wide Net 

then all at once they looked at each other. Some- 
how that was as i£ they had a secret, for he had 
never stirred. Livvie then politely, but all at once, 
closed the door. 

“Well! I’d certainly like to leave you with a 
lipstick!” said Miss Baby Marie vivaciously. She 
smiled in the door. 

“Lady, but I told you I don’t have no money, 
and never did have.” 

“And never will?” In the air and all around, 
like a bright halo around the white lady’s nodding 
head, it was a true spring day. 

“Would you take eggs, lady?” asked Livvie 
softly. 

“No, I have plenty of eggs— plenty,” said Miss 
Baby Marie. 

“I still don’t have no money,” said Livvie, and 
Miss Baby Marie took her suitcase and went on 
somewhere else. 

Livvie stood watching her go, and all the time 
she felt her heart beating in her left side. She 
touched the place with her hand. It seemed as if 
her heart beat and her whole face flamed from the 
pulsing color of her lips. She went to sit by Solo- 
mon and when he opened his eyes he could not 
see a change in her. “He’s fixin’ to die,” she said 
inside. That was the secret. That was when she 
went out of the house for a little breath of air. 


■f 



Livvte 


169 

She went down the path and down the Natchez 
Trace a way, and she did not know how far she 
had gone, but it was not far, when she saw a sight. 
It was a man, looking like a vision— she standing 
on one side of the Old Natchez Trace and he 
standing on the other. 

As soon as this man caught sight of her, he be- 
gan to look himself over. Starting at the bottom 
with his pointed shoes, he began to look up, lift- 
ing his peg-top pants the higher to see fully his 
bright socks. His coat long and wide and leaf- 
green he opened like doors to see his high-up 
tawny pants and his pants he smoothed downward 
from the points of his collar, and he wore a lumi- 
nous baby-pink satin shirt. At the end, he reached 
gently above his wide platter-shaped round hat, 
the color of a plum, and one finger touched at the 
feather, emerald green, blowing in the spring 
winds. 

No matter how she looked, she could never 
look 30 fine as he did, and she was not sorry for 
that, she was pleased. 

He took three jumps, one down and two up, 
and was by her side. 

"My name is Cash,” he said. 

He had a guinea pig in his pocket. They began 
to walk along. She stared on and on at him, as if 
he were doing some daring spectacular thing, in- 
stead of just walking beside her. It was not simply 



lyo The Wide Net 

the city way he was dressed that made her look 
at him and see hope in its insolence looking hack. 
It was not only the way he moved along kicking 
the flowers as if he could break through every- 
thing in the way and destroy anything in the 
world, that made her eyes grow bright. It might 
be, if he had not appeared the way he did appear 
that day she would never have looked so closely 
at him, but the time people come makes a dif- 
ference. 

They walked through the still leaves of the 
Natchez Trace, the light and the shade falling 
through trees about them, the white irises shining 
like candles on the banks and the new ferns shin- 
ing like green stars up in the oak branches. They 
came out at Solomon’s house, bottle trees and all. 
Liwie stopped and hung her head. 

Cash began whistling a little tune. She did not 
know what it was, but she had heard it before 
from a distance, and she had a revelation. Cash 
was a field hand. He was a transformed field hand. 
Cash belonged to Solomon. But he had stepped 
out of his overalls into this. There in front of 
Solomon’s house he laughed. He had a round 
head, a round face, all of him was young, and he 
flung his head up, rolled it against the mare’s-tail 
sky in his round hat, and he could laugh just to 
see Solomon’s house sitting there. Liwie looked at 
it, and there was Solomon’s black hat hanging on 



Livvie 171 

the peg on the front door, the blackest thing in 
the world. 

“'I been to Natchez,” Cash said, wagging his 
head around against the sky. “I taken a trip, I 
ready for Easter!” 

How was it possible to look so fine before the 
harvest? Cash must have stolen the money, stolen 
it from Solomon. He stood in the path and lifted 
his spread hand high and brought it down again 
and again in his laughter. He kicked up his heels. 
A little chill went through her. It was as if Cash 
was bringing that strong hand down to beat a 
drum or to rain blows upon a man, such an aban- 
don and menace were in his laugh. Frowning, she 
went closer to him and his swinging arm drew 
her in at once and the fright rvas crushed from 
her body, as a little match-flame might be smoth- 
ered out by what it lighted. She gathered the folds 
of his coat behind him and fastened her red lips 
to his mouth, and she was dazzled by herself then, 
the way he had been dazzled at himself to begin 
with. 

In that instant she felt something that could 
not be told— -that Solomon’s death was at hand, 
that he was the same to her as if he were dead 
now. She cried out, and uttering little cries turned 
and ran for the house. 

At once Cash was coming, following after, he 
was running behind her. He came close, and half- 



The Wide Net 


172 

way up the path he laughed and passed her. He 
even picked up a stone and sailed it into the bottle 
trees. She put her hands over her head, and sounds 
clattered through the bottle trees like cries of 
outrage. Cash stamped and plunged zigzag up the 
front steps and in at the door. 

When she got there, he had stuck his hands in 
his pockets and was turning slowly about in the 
front room. The little guinea pig peeped out. 
Around Cash, the pinned-up palmettos looked as 
if a lazy green monkey had walked up and down 
and around the walls leaving green prints of his 
hands and feet. 

She got through the room and his hands were 
still in his pockets, and she fell upon the closed 
door to the other room and pushed it open. She 
ran to Solomon’s bed, calling “Solomon! Solo- 
mon!” The little shape of the old man never 
moved at all, wrapped under the quilt as if it 
were winter still. 

“Solomon!” She pulled the quilt away, but 
there was another one under that, and she fell on 
her knees beside him. He made no sound except a 
sigh, and then she could hear in the silence the 
light springy steps of Cash walking and walking in 
the front room, and the ticking of Solomon’s silver 
watch, which came from the bed. Old Solomon 
was far away in his sleep, his face looked small, re- 



Livvie 


173 

lentless, and devout, as i£ he were walking some- 
where where she could imagine the snow falling. 

Then there was a noise like a hoof pawing the 
floor, and the door gave a creak, and Cash ap- 
peared beside her. When she looked up. Cash’s 
face was so black it was bright, and so bright and 
bare of pity that it looked sweet to her. She stood 
up and held up her head. Cash was so powerful 
that his presence gave her strength even when she 
did not need any. 

Under their eyes Solomon slept. People’s faces 
tell of things and places not known to the one 
who looks at them while they sleep, and while 
Solomon slept under the eyes of Livvie and Cash 
his face told them like a mythical story that all his 
life he had built, little scrap by little scrap, re- 
spect. A beetle could not have been more labori- 
ous or more ingenious in the task of its destiny. 
When Solomon was young, as he was in his pic- 
ture overhead, it was the infinite thing with him, 
and he could see no end to the respect he would 
contrive and keep in a house. He had built a 
lonely house, the way he would make a cage, but 
it grew to be the same with him as a great monu- 
mental pyramid and sometimes in his absorption 
of getting it erected he was like the builder-slaves 
of Egypt who forgot or never knew the origin and 
meaning of the thing to which they gave all the 



The Wide Net 


i'74 

strength of their bodies and used up all their days. 
Livvie and Cash could see that as a man might 
rest from a life-labor he lay in his bed, and they 
could hear how, wrapped in his quilt, he sighed 
to himself comfortably in sleep, while in his 
dreams he might have been an ant, a beetle, a 
bird, an Egyptian, assembling and carrying on his 
back and building with his hands, or he might 
have been an old man of India or a swaddled 
baby, about to smile and brush all away. 

Then without warning old Solomon’s eyes flew 
wide open under the hedge-like brows. He was 
wide awake. 

And instantly Cash raised his quick arm. A ra- 
diant sweat stood on his temples. But he did not 
bring his arm down— it stayed in the air, as if 
something might have taken hold. 

It was not Livvie— she did not move. As if some- 
thing said “Wait,” she stood waiting. Even while 
her eyes burned under motionless lids, her lips 
parted in a stiff grimace, and with her arms stiff 
at her sides she stood above the prone old man 
and the panting young one, erect and apart. 

Movement when it came came in Solomon’s 
face. It was an old and strict face, a frail face, but 
behind it, like a covered light, came an animation 
that could play hide and seek, that would dart and 
escape, had always escaped. The mystery flickered 



Livvie 


175 

in him, and invited from his eyes. It was that very 
mystery that Cash with his quick arm would have 
to strike, and that Livvie could not weep for. But 
Cash only stood holding his arm in the air, when 
the gentlest flick of his great strength, almost a 
puff of his breath, would have been enough, if he 
had known how to give it, to send the old man 
over the obstruction that kept him away from 
death. 

If it could not be that the tiny illumination in 
the fragile and ancient face caused a crisis, a mys- 
tery in the room that would not permit a blow to 
fall, at least it was certain that Cash, throbbing in 
his Easter clothes, felt a pang of shame that the 
vigor of a man would come to such an end that he 
could not be struck without warning. He took 
down his hand and stepped back behind Livvie, 
like a round-eyed schoolboy on whose unsuspect- 
ing head the dunce cap has been set. 

“Young ones can’t wait,” said Solomon. 

Livvie shuddered violently, and then in a gush 
of tears she stooped for a glass of water and handed 
it to him, but he did not see her. 

“So here come the young man Livvie wait for. 
Was no prevention. No prevention. Now I lay 
eyes on young man and it come to be somebody 
I know all the time, and been knowing since he 
were born in a cotton patch, and watched grow 



The Wide Net 


176 

up year to year, Cash McCord, growed to size, 
growed up to come in my house in the end- 
ragged and barefoot.” 

Solomon gave a cough of distaste. Then he shut 
his eyes vigorously, and his lips began to move 
like a chanter’s. 

“When Livvie married, her husband were al- 
ready somebody. He had paid great cost for his 
land. He spread sycamore leaves over the ground 
from wagon to door, day he brought her home, so 
her foot would not have to touch ground. He car- 
ried her through his door. Then he growed old 
and could not lift her, and she were still young.” 

Livvie’s sobs followed his w^rds like a soft 
melody repeating each thing as he stated it. His 
lips moved for a little without sound, or she cried 
too fervently, and unheard he might have been 
telling his whole life, and then he said, “God for- 
give Solomon for sins great and small. God forgive 
Solomon for carrying away too young girl for 
wife and keeping her away from her people and 
from all the young people would clamor for her 
back.” 

Then he lifted up his right hand toward Livvie 
where she stood by the bed and offered her his 
silver watch. He dangled it before her eyes, and 
she hushed crying; her tears stopped. For a mo- 
ment the watch could be heard ticking as it always 



Lixwie 


177 

did, precisely in his proud hand. She lifted it 
away. Then he took hold of the quilt; then he was 
dead. 

Liwie left Solomon dead and went out of the 
room. Stealthily, nearly without noise. Cash went 
beside her. He was like a shadow, but his shiny 
shoes moved over the floor in spangles, and the 
green downy feather shone like a light in his hat. 
As they reached the front room, he seized her 
deftly as a long black cat and dragged her hang- 
ing by the waist round and round him, while he 
turned in a circle, his face bent down to hers. The 
first moment, she kept one arm and its hand stiff 
and still, the one that held Solomon’s watch. Then 
the fingers softly let go, all of her was limp, and 
the watch fell somewhere on the floor. It ticked 
away in the still room, and all at once there began 
outside the full song of a bird. 

They moved around and around the room and 
into the brightness of the open door, then he 
stopped and shook her once. She rested in silence 
in his trembling arms, unprotesting as a bird on 
a nest. Outside the redbirds were flying and criss- 
crossing, the sun was in all the bottles on the 
prisoned trees, and the young peach was shining 
in the middle of them with the bursting light of 
spring. 



AT THE LANDING 


v^HE NIGHT that Jenny’s grand- 
father died, he dreamed of high water. 

He came in his dream and stood just outside 
the door of her room, his little chin that was like 
a chicken’s clean breastbone tilting upwards. 

“It has come,” the old man said, and he made a 
complaint of it. 

Jenny in her bed lay still, waking more still than 
in the sleep of a moment before. 

“The river has come back. That Floyd came to 
tell me. The sun was shining full on the face of 
the church, and that Floyd came around it with 
his wrist hung with a great long catfish. ‘It’s com- 
ing,’ he said. ‘It’s the river.’ Oh, it came then! 
Like a head and arm. Like a horse. A mane of 
cedar trees tossing over the top. It has borne down, 
and it has closed us in. That Floyd was right.” 

He reached as if to lift an obstacle that he 
thought was stretched there— the bar that crossed 
the door in her mother’s time. It seemed beyond 

178 



At the Landing 179 

his strength, she tried to cry out, and he came in 
through the doorway. The cord and tassel of his 
brocade robe— for he had put it on— seemed to 
weigh upon his fragile walking like a chain, and 
yet it could have been by inexorable will that he 
wore it, so set were his little steps, in such duty 
he dragged it. 

“Like poor people who have learned to fly at 
last,” he said, walking, dragging, the fine depre- 
cation in his voice, “all the people in The Land- 
ing, all kinds and conditions of people, are glid- 
ing off and upward to darkness. The little mando- 
lin that my daughter used to play— it’s rising like 
a bubble, and filling with water.” 

“Grandpa!” cried Jenny, and then she was up 
and taking her grandfather by his tiny adamant 
shoulders. It was moonlight. She saw his open 
eyes. “Wake up. Grandpa!” 

“That Floyd’s catfish has gone loose and free,” 
he said gently, as if breaking news to someone. 
“And all of a sudden, my dear— my dears, it took 
its river life back, and shining so brightly swam 
through the belfry of the church, and down- 
stream.” At that his mouth clamped tight shut. 

She held out both arms and he fell trembling 
against her. With beating heart she carried him 
through the dark halls to his room and put him 
down into his bed. He lay there in the moonlight, 
which moved and crept across him as it would a 



i8o 


The Wide Net 


little fallen withered leaf, and he never moved or 
spoke any more, but lay softly, as if he were float- 
ing, being carried away, drawn by the passing 
moon; and Jenny’s heart beat on and on, sharp as 
birdsong in the night, under her breast, until day. 

Under the shaggy bluff the bottomlands lay in 
a river of golden haze. The road dropped like a 
waterfall from the ridge to the town at its foot 
and came to a grassy end there. It was spring. One 
slowly moving figure that was a man with a fish- 
ing pole passed like a dreamer through the empty 
street and on through the trackless haze toward 
the river. The town was still called The Landing. 
The river had gone, three miles away, beyond 
sight and smell, beyond the dense trees. It came 
back only in flood, and boats ran over the houses. 

Up the light-scattered hill, in the house with 
the galleries, the old man and his granddaughter 
had always lived. They were the people least seen 
in The Landing. The grandfather was too old, 
and the girl was too shy of the world, and they 
were both too good— -the old ladies said— to come 
out, and so they stayed inside. 

For all her life the shy Jenny could look, if she 
stayed in the parlor, back and forth between her 
mother’s two paintings, “The Bird Fair” and 
“The Massacre at Fort Rosalie.” Or if she went 



At the Landing i8i 

in the dining room she could walk around the 
table or sit on one after the other of eight needle- 
point pieces, each slightly different, which her 
mother had worked and sewn to the chairs, or she 
could count the plates that stood on their rims in 
the closet. In the library she could circle an en- 
tirely bare floor and make up a dance to a song 
she made up, all silently, or gaze at the backs of 
the books without titles— books that had been on 
ships and in oxcarts and through fire and water, 
and were singed and bleached and swollen and 
shrunken, and arranged up high and nearly un- 
reachable, like objects of beauty. Wherever she 
went she almost touched a prism. The house was 
full of prisms. They hung everywhere in the 
shadow of the halls and in the sunlight of the 
rooms, stirring under the hanging lights, dangling 
and circling where they were strung in the win- 
dow curtains. They gave off the faintest of musical 
notes when air stirred in any room or when only 
herself passed by, and they touched. It was her way 
not to touch them herself, but to let the touch be 
magical, a stir of the curtain by the outer air, that 
would also make them rainbows. Vases with land- 
scapes on them stood in the halls and were re- 
flected endlessly rising in front of her when she 
passed quickly between the two mirrors. She 
might stop and touch all things, trace their little 
pictures with her finger, and put them back again; 



iSs The Wide Net 

it was not forbidden; but her touch that dared not 
break would have been transparent as a spirit’s on 
the objects. She was calm the way a child is calm, 
with never the calmness of a spirit. But like dis- 
tant lightning that silently bathes a whole shim- 
mering sky, one awareness was always trembling 
about her: one day she would be free to come 
and go. Nothing now held her in her own room, 
with the great wardrobe in which she had some- 
times longed to hide, and the great box-like cano- 
pied bed and the little picture on the wall of ner 
mother with upturned eyes. Jenny could go from 
room to room, and out at the door. But at the 
door her grandfather would call her back, with his 
little murmur. 

At sunset the old man and his granddaughter 
would take their supper in the pavilion on the 
knoll, that had been a gazebo when the river ran 
before it. There a little breeze came all the way 
from the river still. All about the pavilion was an 
ancient circling thorny rose, like the initial letter 
in a poetry book. The cook came out and served 
with exaggerated dignity, as though she scolded 
in the house. A little picture might be preserved 
then in all their heads. The old man and the 
young girl looked across the round table leaf- 
shadowed under the busy black hands, and smiled 
by long habit at each other. But her grandfather 
could not look at her without speculation in his 



At the Landing 183 

eyes, and the gaze that went so fondly between 
them held and stretched tight the memory of 
Jenny’s mother. It seemed strange that her mother 
had been dead now for so many years and yet the 
wild desire that had torn her seemed still fresh 
and still a small thing. It was a desire to get to 
Natchez. People said Natchez was a nice little 
town on Saturdays with a crowd filling it and 
moving around. 

The grandfather stirred his black coffee and 
smiled at Jenny. He deprecated raving simply as 
raving, as a force of Nature and so beneath notice 
or mention. And yet— even now, too late— if Jenny 
could plead . . . ! In a heat wave one called the 
cook to bring a fan, and in his daughter’s first rav- 
ing he rang a bell and told the cook to take her off 
and sit by her until she had done with it, but in 
the end she died of it. But Jenny could not plead 
for her. 

Her grandfather, frail as a little bird, would say 
when it was time to go in. He would rise slowly in 
the brocade gown he wore to study in, and put his 
weight, which was the terrifying weight of a claw, 
on Jenny’s arm. Jenny was obedient to her grand- 
father and would have been obedient to anybody, 
to a stranger in the street if there could be one. 
She never performed any act, even a small act, for 
herself, she would not touch the prisms. It might 
seem that nothing began in her own heart. 



184 The Wide Net 

Nothing ever happened, to be seen from the 
gazebo, except that Billy Floyd went through the 
town. He was almost unknown, and one to him- 
self. If he came at all, he would come at this time 
of day. In the long shadows below they could see 
his figure with the gleaming fish he carried move 
clear as a candle over the road that he had to him- 
self, and out to the blue distance. In The Land- 
ing, every person that moved was watched out of 
sight, and it made a little pause in every life. And 
if in each day a moment of hope must come, in 
Jenny’s day the moment was when the rude wild 
Floyd walked through The Landing carrying the 
big fish he had caught. 

Under the blue sky, skirting the ravine, a half- 
ring of twenty cedar trees stood leading to the 
cemetery, their bleached trunks the colors of red 
and white roses. Jenny, given permission, would 
walk up there to visit the grave of her mother. 

The cemetery was a dark shelf above the town, 
on the site of the old landing place when the ships 
docked from across the world a hundred years 
ago, and its brink was marked by an old table-like 
grave with its top ajar where the woodbine grew. 
Everywhere there, the hanging moss and the up- 
thrust stones were in that strange graveyard shade 
where, by the light they give, the moss seems made 
of stone, and the stone of moss. 



At the Landing 185 

On one of the days, while she sat there on a 
stile, Jenny looked across (he ravine and there was 
Floyd, standing still in a sunny pasture. She could 
watch between the grapevines, which hung and 
held back like ropes on either side to clear her 
view. Floyd had a head of straight light-colored 
hair and it hung over his forehead, for he never 
was near a comb. He stood facing her in a tall 
squared posture of silence and rest, while a rusty- 
red horse that belonged to the Lockharts cropped 
loudly beside him in the wild-smelling pasture. 

It was said by the old ladies that he slept all 
morning for he fished all night. Stiff and stern, 
Jenny sat there with her feet planted just so on 
the step below, in the posture of a child who is 
appalled at the stillness and unsurrender of the 
still and unsurrendering world. 

At last she sighed, and when she took up her 
skirt to go, as if she were dreaming she saw Floyd 
coming across the pasture toward her. When he 
reached the ravine and leaped down into it with 
widespread arms as though he jumped into some- 
thing dangerous, she stood still on the stile to 
watch. He moved up near to her now, his feet on 
the broken ferns at the spring. The wind whipped 
his hair, almost making a noise. 

“Go back,” she said. She wanted to watch him 
a while longer first, before he got to her. 

He stopped and looked full at her, his strong 



The Wide Net 


186 

neck bending to one side as i£ yielding in pleasure 
to the wind. His arms went down and his fists 
opened. But for her, his eyes were as bright and 
unconsumed as stars up in the sky. Then she 
wanted to catch him and see him close, but not to 
touch him. He stood watching her, though, as if to 
prevent it. They were as still and rigid as two 
mocking-birds that were about to strike their 
beaks and dance. 

She waited, but he smiled, and then knelt and 
cupped both hands to his face in the spring water. 
He drank for a long time, while she stood there 
with her skirt whipping in the wind, and waited 
on him to see how long he could drink without 
lifting his face. When he had drunk that much, 
he went back to the field and threw himself yawn- 
ing down into the grass. The grass was so deep 
there that she could see only the one arm flung out 
in the torn sleeve, straight, sun-blacked and mo- 
tionless. 

The day she watched him in the woods, she felt 
it come to her dimly that her innocence had left 
her, since she could watch his. She could only sink 
down onto the step of the stile, and lay her heavy 
forehead in her hand. But if innocence had left, 
she still did not know what was to come. She 
■would wait and see him come awake. 

But he slept and slept like the dead, and de- 



At the Landing 187 

teated her. She went to her grandfather and left 
Floyd sleeping. 

Another day, they walked for a little near to- 
gether, each picking some berry or leaf to hold in 
the mouth, on their opposite sides of the little 
spring. The pasture, the sun and the grazing horse 
were on his side, the graves on hers, and they each 
looked across at the other’s. The whole world 
seemed filled with butterflies. At each step they 
took, two black butterflies over the flowers were 
whirring just alike, suspended in the air, one 
circling the other rhythmically, or both moving 
from side to side in a gentle wave-like way, one 
above the other. They were blue-black and mov- 
ing their wings faster than Jenny’s eye could fol- 
low, always together, like each other’s shadows, 
beautiful each one with the other. Jenny could 
see to start with that no kiss had ever brought love 
tenderly enough from mouth to mouth. 

Jenny and Floyd stopped and looked for a little 
while at all the butterflies and they never touched 
each other. When Jenny did touch Floyd, touch 
his sleeve, he started. 

He went alert in the field like a listening ani- 
mal. The horse came near and when he touched 
it, stood with lifted ears beside him, then broke 
away. But over all The Landing there was not a 
sound that she could hear. It could only be that 
Floyd missed nothing in the world, and could hear 



i88 The Wide Net 

innumerable outward things. He suddenly flung 
up his head. She knew he was smiling. And a smile 
was always a barrier. 

She said his name, for she was so close by. It 
was the first time. 

He stayed motionless, and she knew that he 
lived apart in delight. That could make a strange 
glow fall over the field where he was, and the 
world go black for her, left behind. She felt terri- 
fied, as if at a pitiless thing. 

Floyd lifted his foot and stamped on the ground, 
and held out his careless arms to catch the horse 
he had excited. Then he was jumping on its bare 
back and riding into a gallop, shouting to frighten 
and amaze whoever listened. She threw herself 
down into the grass. Never had she known that 
the Lockhart horse could run like that. Floyd went 
at a racing speed and he seemed somehow in his 
tattered shirt— as she watched from beneath her 
arm— to stream with the wind, and he circled the 
steep field three times, and with flying yellow hair 
and a diminishing shout rode up into the woods. 

If she could have followed and found him then, 
she would have started on foot. But she knew what 
she would find when she would come to him. She 
would find him equally real with herself— and 
could not touch him then. As she was living and 
inviolate, so of course was he, and when that gave 
him delight, how could she bring a question to 



At the Landing 189 

him? She walked in the woods and around the 
graves in it, and knew about love, how it would 
have a different story in the world if it could lose 
the moral knowledge of a mystery that is in the 
other heart. Nothing in Floyd frightened her that 
drew her near, but at once she had the knowledge 
come to her that a fragile mystery was in everyone 
and in herself, since there it was in Floyd, and 
that whatever she did, she would be bound to ride 
over and hurt, and the secrecy of life was the ter- 
ror of it. When Floyd rode the red horse, she lay 
in the grass. He might even have jumped across 
her. But the vaunting and prostration of love told 
her nothing— nothing at all. 

The very next day Jenny waited on the stile and 
she saw Floyd come walking up the road in the 
morning, with drenched hair. He might have 
come and found her, but he came to the Lockhart 
house first. 

The Lockhart house stood between two of the 
empty stretches along the road. It was wide, low, 
and twisted. Its roof, held up at the corners by 
the two chimneys, sagged like a hammock, and 
was mended with bark and small colored signs. 
The black high-water mark made a belt around 
the house and that alone seemed to tighten it and 
hold it together. Floyd stood gazing in at the door- 
way, as if what might not come out? And it was 
a beautiful doorway to see, with its fanlight and 



The Wide Net 


190 

its sidelights, though they were blind with silt. 
The door was shut and the squirrels were asleep 
on the floor of the long cage across the front wall. 
Under the forward-tilting porch the clay-colored 
hens were sitting in twos in the old rowboat. And 
while Floyd looked, out came Mag. 

And the next thing, he was playing with Mag 
Lockhart, that was an albino. Mag’s short white 
hair would stream out from her head when she 
crouched nodding over her flowers in the yard, 
tending them with a jack-knife all day, and she 
would give a splitting laugh to see anyone come. 
Jenny from the stile watched them wrestle and 
play. The treadmill ran under the squirrels’ quick 
feet. 

Mag’s voice came a long distance through the 
still day. “You are notl’’ “It is not!” “I am not!” 
she would scream, and she would jump away. 

Floyd would turn on his heel and whirl old 
Mag off the ground. Mag ran and she snapped at 
him, she struggled and she crackled like a green 
wood fire, and he laughed and caught her. She 
pointed and sent him for the water, and he went 
and clattered and banged the buckets for her at 
the well until she begged him to stop. He went 
straight off and old Mag sat down on her front 
steps with the hens and rubbed at her flame-pink 
arms. 

And then suddenly Mag was gone. 



At the Landing igi 

Jenny put her hands over her forehead, and 
then rubbed at her own arms. She believed Mag 
had been there, because she had felt whatever Mag 
had felt. If this was a vision, it was the first. And 
it did not frighten her; she knew it only came be- 
cause she had felt what was in another heart be- 
sides her own. But it had been Mag’s heart that 
grew clear to her, while Floyd ran away. 

She lay down in the grass, which whispered in 
her ear. If desperation were only a country, it 
would be at the bottom of the well. She wanted 
to get there, to arrive graceful and airy in some 
strange other country and walk along its level 
land beneath its secret sky. She thought she could 
see herself, fleet as a mirror-image, rising up in a 
breath of astonished farewell and walking to the 
well of old Mag. It was built so that it had steps 
like a stile. She saw herself walk up them, stand on 
top, look about, and then go into the dark passage. 

But my grandfather, she thought, even while 
she sank so deeply, will call me back. I will have 
to go back. He will ask me if I have put flowers 
on my mother’s grave. And she looked over at the 
stone on the grave of her mother, with her mar- 
ried name of Lockhart cut into it. 

She clutched the thing in her hand, a blade of 
grass, and held on. There she was, sitting up in 
the sun, with the blade of grass stretched between 
her thumbs and held to her mouth, for the calling 



The Wide Net 


192 

back chat was in the world. She blew on the grass. 
It made a thoughtless reedy sound, and she blew 
again. 

11 

The morning after her grandfather’s death, 
Jenny put on a starched white dress and went 
down the hill into The Landing. A little cro- 
cheted bag hung by a ribbon over her wrist, and 
she had taken a nickel to put in it. Her good 
black strapped slippers moved lightly in the dust. 
She was going to tell the news of her grandfather, 
whom the old ladies had said would die suddenly 
—like that. And looking about with every step she 
took, she saw what a lonesome place it was for all 
of this to happen in. 

She passed a house that only the mice inhabited. 
She passed a black boarded-up store where an owl 
used to live and maintain its nocturnal habits. And 
there, a young calf belonging to the Lockharts 
used to nose through the grassy rooms, before the 
walls were carried away by the Negroes and burned 
in a winter for firewood. In front of the row of 
Negro cabins was one long fence, made of lumber 
from old boats, built there to delay the river tor 
one more moment when it came, the same as they 
would have delayed a giant bent on destruction 
by some foolish pretext. 

Across the end of the road, crumbling under 



At the Landing 193 

her eyes, was a two-story building with a remnant 
of gallery, and that was Jenny’s destination. The 
store and the postoffice were in the one used room. 
Across the tin awning hung the moss icicles with 
which the postmaster had decorated for Christ- 
mas. Over the door was the shriveled mistletoe, 
and the gun that had shot it down still standing 
in the corner. Tipped back against the front wall 
sat five old men in their chairs, with one holding 
the white cat. On the step. Son Alford was play- 
ing his mandolin that had been Jenny’s mother’s 
and given away. He was singing his fast song. 

“Ain’t she cute 
Ain’t she' smart 
Don’t look twice 
It’ll break my heart 
Everybody loves my gal.” 

All nodded to her, but they knew she was not sup- 
posed to speak to them. 

She went inside, and the first thing she saw was 
Billy Floyd. He was standing in the back of the 
room with the postmaster saying to him, “Reckon 
we’re going to have water this year?” 

She had never seen the man between walls and 
under a roof and somehow it made him a different 
man after the one in the field. He stood in the dim 
and dingy store with a row of filmy glass lamps 
and a pair of boots behind his head, and there was 



ig4 The Wide Net 

something close, gathering-close, and used and 
worldly about him. 

“That slime, that’s just as slick! You know how 
a fish is, I expect,” the postmaster was saying 
affably to them both, just as if they were in any 
way together. “That’s the way a house is, been 
under water. It’s a sight to see those niggers try 
to clean this place out, falling down to slide from 
here to the front door and back. You have to get 
the slime off right away too, or you never can. 
Sure would make the best paint in the world.” He 
laughed. 

There was something handled and used about 
Floyd, something strong as an odor, the odor of 
the old playing cards that the old men of The 
Landing shuffled every day over their table in the 
street. 

“Reckon we’re going to have water this year?” 
the postmaster asked again. He looked from one 
of them to the other. 

Floyd said nothing, he only held a penny. For 
a moment Jenny thought he was going to drop his 
high head at being trapped in the confined place, 
with her between him and the door, which would 
be the same as telling it out, before a third per- 
son, that he could be known in time if he were 
caught and cornered in a little store. 

“What would you like today. Miss Jenny?” 
asked the postmaster. “Posy seeds?” 



At the Landing 195 

But she could not think what she would like. 
She held her little bag quite still, the strings drawn 
tight. 

All the time, Floyd was giving her a glaring 
look. 

“Well, it makes you think sometimes, to see the 
water come over all the world,” said the post- 
master. “I took everything I could out of here last 
time. Then I come down from the hill and peeked 
in the door and what did I see? My showcases com- 
mencing to float loose. What a sight that did make! 
I wouldn’t have thought I sold some of them 
things. Carried the showcases out on the hill, but 
nowhere much to take them. Could you believe 
I could carry everything out of my store in twenty 
minutes but my safe? Couldn’t lift that. Left the 
door to it open and went off and left it. So as it 
wouldn’t rust shut, Floyd, Miss Jenny. Took me 
a long time to scrape the river out of that thing.” 

All three waited a moment, and then the post- 
master spoke again in a softer, intimate voice, 
smilingly. “Some stranger lost through here says, 
‘Why don’t you all move away?’ Move away?” He 
laughed, and pointed a finger at Jenny. “Did you 
hear that. Miss Jenny— why don’t we move away? 
Because we live here, don’t we. Miss Jenny?” 

Then she knew it was a challenge Floyd made 
with his hard look, and she lost to him. She walked 
out and left him where he held his solid stand. 



196 The Wide Net 

And when the postmaster had pointed his finger ai 
her, she remembered that she was never to speak 
to Billy Floyd, by the order of her grandfather. 

Outside the door, she stopped still. The weight 
of the nickel swung in her little bag, and she felt 
as if she had forgotten Doomsday. She took a step 
back toward the challenging Floyd. Then in a 
kind of haste she whispered to the five old men, 
separately, and even to Son Alford, and each time 
nearer to tears for her grandfather that died in the 
night. Then they gathered round her, and hurried 
her to the old women, and so back home. 

But Floyd’s face glared before her eyes all the 
way, it was like something in her vision that kept 
her from seeing. It was brighter than the glare 
of death. He might have been buying a box of 
matches with his penny, which was what his go- 
ing cost. He would go. The danger of flood was 
her grandfather’s dream, and the postmaster’s 
storekeeper wit. These were bright days and clear 
nights; and so Floyd would not wait long in The 
Landing. That was what the old ladies said, and 
asked that their words be marked. 

But on a later day, Jenny took a walk and met 
Floyd by the little river that came out of the 
spring and went to the Mississippi beyond. She 
sat down and made a clover chain that would 
never get long because the cloverheads slipped 



At the Landing 197 

out, and while she made it she kept looking with 
assuring looks into his illuminated eyes that went 
over the landscape and searched the sky for clouds. 
She could hold his look for a moment and then it 
would get away. She did not say a thing to him, 
for nobody can say, “It is a heavy heart that makes 
me clumsy.” Nobody can say anything so true and 
apologetic. Nobody can say, “Forgive the heavy 
heart that loves more than the tongue can say or 
the hands can do. Look back at me every time I 
look at you and never feel pity, for what my heart 
holds this minute is better than what you offer the 
least bit less.” Her eyes were telling him this but 
if he knew it or felt a threat in it, he never gave 
a sign. “My heart loves more than I can say or do, 
but feel no pity, only have a little vision too, of 
all clumsiness fallen away.” She guessed that all 
grace belongs to the future. But he never had any- 
thing to say to her thought or her guess. He stood 
above her with his feet planted down and looked 
out over the landscape from within that moment. 
Level with him now, all The Landing spread 
under his eyes. Not knowing the world around, 
she could not know how The Landing looked set 
down in it. All she knew was that he would leave 
it when his patience gave out, and that this little 
staving moment by the river would reach its limit 
and go first. 

Her eyes descended slowly, as if adorned with 



The Wide Net 


198 

flowers, from his light blowing hair and his gath- 
ering brows down, down him, past his clever 
hands that caught and trapped so delicately away 
from her side, softly down to the ground that was 
a sandy shore. A hidden mussel was blowing bub- 
bles like a spring through the sand where his 
boot was teasing the water. It was the little pulse 
of bubbles and not himself or herself that was the 
moment for her then; and he could have already 
departed and she could have already wept, and it 
would have been the same, as she stared at the 
little fountain rising so gently out of the shim- 
mering sand. A clear love is in the world— this 
came to her as insistently as the mussel’s bubbles 
through the water. There it was, existing there 
where they came and were beside it now. It is in 
the bubble in the water in the river, and it has its 
own changing and its mysteries of days and nights, 
and it does not care how we come and go. 

But when the moment ended, he went. And as 
soon as he left The Landing, the rain began to 
fall. 

Each day the storm clouds were opening like 
great purple flowers and pouring out their dark 
thunder. Each nightfall, the storm was laid down 
on their houses like a burden the day had carried. 
The noise of rain, of the gullies filling, of the 



At the Landing 199 

little river leaping up and running in waves filled 
all The Landing. 

And when at last the river came, it did come 
like a hand and arm, and pushed black trees be- 
fore it, but it was at dawn. Jenny went with the 
others, behind Mag Lockhart, onto the hill and 
the water followed, whirling and bobbing the 
young dead animals around on its roaring breast. 
The clouds lowered and broke again and the rain 
put out the lanterns. Boat whistles began crying 
as faint as baby cries in that rainy dark. 

Jenny had not spoken for a day and a night on 
the hill when she told someone that she was sleepy. 
It was Billy Floyd that she told it to. He put her 
in his boat, that she had never seen. Jenny looked 
in Floyd’s shining eyes and saw how they held the 
whole flood, as the flood held its triumph in its 
whirlpools, and it was a vast and unsuspected 
thing. 

It was on the high hill of the cemetery, when 
the water was at its peak. They came in Floyd’s 
boat where the river lapped around the dark cedar 
tops, and monuments like pillars to bear them up 
scraped their passage, and she knew they rode over 
the grave of her grandfather and the grave of her 
mother. Muscadine vines spread under the water 
rippling their leaves like schools of fishes. It was 



200 The Wide Net 

always the same darkness. Fires burned some- 
where, but in the distance, red and blue. 

“I . . .” she began, and stopped. 

He scowled. 

She knew at once that there was nothing in her 
life past or even now in the flood that would make 
anything to tell. He already knew that he had 
saved her life, for that had taken up his time in 
the time of danger. Yet she might confess it. It 
came to her lips. He scowled on. Still, it was not 
any kind of confession that she would finally wish 
to make. She would like to tell him some strange 
beautiful thing, if she could speak at all, some- 
thing to make him speak. Communication would 
be telling something that is all new, so as to have 
more of the new told back. The dream of that 
held her spellbound, with the things possible that 
hung in the air like clouds over the world, and 
she smiled in pure belief, for they we^e beautiful. 

“I . . .” She looked softly at him as if from a 
distance down a little road or a little tether he 
sent her on. 

He took hold of her, put her out of the boat 
into a little place he made that was dry and green 
and smelled good, and she went to sleep. After a 
time that could have been long or short, she 
thought she heard him say, “Wake up.” 

When her eyes were open and clear upon him, 
he violated her and still he was without care or 



201 


At the Landing 

demand and as gay as if he were still clanging the 
bucket at the well. With the same thoughtlessness 
of motion, that was a kind of grace, he next 
speared a side of wild meat from an animal he 
had killed and had ready in his boat, and cooked 
it over a fire he had burning on the ground. All 
the water lapped around. Over its sound she 
whispered something, but his movement and his 
task went on firmly about his leaping fire. People 
who had been there in other floods had put their 
initials on the tree. Her words came a little louder 
and in shyness she changed them from words of 
love to words of wishing, but still he did not look 
around. “I wish you and I could be far away. I 
wish for a little house.” But ideas of any different 
thing from what was in his circle of fire might 
never have reached his ears, for all the attention 
he paid to her remarks. 

He had fishes ready too, wrapped and cooking 
in a hole scooped in the ground. When she ate 
it was in obedience to him, though he did not say 
“Eat” or say anything, he only smiled at the fire, 
and for him it was all a taking freely of what was 
free. She knew from him nevertheless that what 
people ate in the world was earth, river, wildness 
and litheness, fire and ashes. People took the fresh 
death and the hot fire into their mouths and got 
their own life. She ate greedily as long as he ate, 
and took what he took. She ate eagerly, looking 



202 


The Wide Net 


up at him while her teeth bit, to show him herself, 
her proud hunger, as if to please and flatter him 
with her original and now lost starvation. But she 
could make him neither sorry nor proud. When 
she was sick afterwards, he walked away and waited 
apart from her shame, as he had left her in his 
delight. 

The dream of love, that made her hold as still 
in her life as if she heard music, had never carried 
her yet to the first country of which it told. But 
there was a country, as surely as there was herself. 
When she saw the moon come up that night and 
grow bright as it went above the flood and the 
boats in it, she was not as sorrowful as she might 
have been, now that they floated so high, that no 
threads hung down from the moon, no tender 
ladder all at once caught light and drifted down. 
There was a need in all dreams for something to 
stay far, far away, never to torment with the rest, 
and the bright moon now was that. 


Ill 

When the water was down, Jenny went back 
below and Floyd went down the river in his boat. 
They parted with the clumsiest of touches. Down 
through the exhausted and still dripping trees she 
made her way, again behind Mag, following the 
tracks and signs of others, and the mud sticking 



At the Landing 203 

to her. Ashes sifted through the air and she saw 
them touch her skin but did not feel them. She 
came to the stile where she could look at the world 
below. The sun was going down and a wind blew 
following after the river, and the little town had 
turned the color of river water and the trees in 
their shame of refuse rattled like yellow pebbles 
and the houses sank below them scuffed and small. 
The smoky band of woods that lay in the distance 
toward the retreating river still seemed to waver 
and slide. 

In The Landing the houses had turned a little, 
like people whose skirts are pulled. Where the 
front of the Lockhart house had been pulled away, 
the furniture, that had been carried out of the 
corners by the river and rocked about, stood in the 
middle of the floor and showed down its back the 
curly yellow grain, like its long hair. One old store 
had been carried clean away, after it was closed so 
long, and in its foundations were the old men 
standing around poking for money with little 
sticks. Money could have fallen through the cracks 
for many years. Fifteen cents and twenty cents 
and a Spanish piece were found, and the old fel- 
lows poking with their sticks were laughing like 
women. 

Jenny came to her house. It stood as before, ex- 
cept that in the yellow and windy light it seemed 
to draw its galleries to itself, to return to its cave 



The Wide Net 


204 

of night and trees, crouched like a child going 
backwards to the womb. 

But once inside, she took one step and was into 
a whole new ecstasy, an ecstasy of cleaning, to 
wash the river out. She ran as if driven, carrying 
buckets and mops. She scrubbed and pried and 
shook the river away. Even the pages of books 
seemed to have been opened and written on 
again by muddy fingers. In the long days when 
she stretched and dried white curtains and sheets, 
rubbed the rust off knives and made them shine, 
and wiped the dark river from all the prisms, she 
forgot even love, to clean. 

But the shock of love had brought a trembling 
to her fingers that made her drop what she 
touched, and made her stumble on the stair, 
though all the time she was driven on. And when 
the house was clean again she felt that there w^as 
no place to hide in it, not one room. She even 
opened the small door of her mother’s last room, 
but when she looked in she thought of her mother 
who was kept guard on there, who struggled un- 
weariedly and all in loneliness, and it was not a 
hiding place. 

If in all The Landing she could have found a 
place to feel alone and out of sight, she would 
have gone there. One old lady or another would 
always call to her when she went by, to tell her 
something, and if she walked out in the road she 



At the Landing 205 

brushed up against the old men sitting at their 
cards, and they spoke to her. She did not like to 
see faces, which were ugly, or flowers, which were 
beautiful and smelled sweet. 

But at last the trembling left and dull strength 
came back, as if a wound had ceased to flow its 
blood. And then one day in summer she could 
look at a bird flying in the air, its tiny body like 
a fist opening and closing, and did not feel daze or 
pain, and then she was healed of the shock of love. 

Then whenever she thought that Floyd was in 
the world, that his life lived and had this night 
and day, it was like discovery once more and again 
fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay 
stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a 
great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole 
body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, 
and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to 
sleep?” For it was love that might always be com- 
ing, and she must watch for it this time and clasp 
it back while it clasped, and while it held her 
never let it go. 

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her 
brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she 
could become bright and shining all at once, as 
though at the very touch of another with herself. 
But now she was like a house with all its rooms 
dark from the beginning, and someone would 
have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and 



2 o 6 The Wide Net 

darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before 
going to the next. It was not caution or distrust 
that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, 
of something that might happen. She herself did 
not know what might lie ahead, she had never 
seen herself. She looked outward with the sense 
of rightful space and time within her, which must 
be traversed before she could be known at all. 
And what she would reveal in the end was not 
herself, but the way of the traveler. 

In The Landing much was known about all 
kinds of love that had happened there, and wis- 
dom traveled, when it left the porches, in the per- 
sons of three old women. The day the old women 
would come to see Jenny, it would be to celebrate 
her ruin that they trudged through the sun in 
their bonnets. They would come up the hill to 
say, “Why don’t you run after him?” and to say, 
“Now you won’t love him any more,” for they al- 
ways did pay a visit to say those words. 

Now only Mag came sidling up, and brought a 
bouquet of amaryllis to present with blushes to 
Jenny. Jenny blushed too. 

“Some people that don’t speak to other people 
don’t grow the prettiest flowers!” Mag cried vic- 
toriously as Jenny took them. Her baby hair blew 
down and her sharp smile cut back into her long 
dry cheek. 



207 


At the Landing 

“I speak to you, Mag,” said Jenny. 

When she walked she heard them talk— the 
three old ladies. About her they said, “She'll fol- 
low her mother to her mother’s grave.” About 
Floyd they had more to say. They called him “the 
wild man” because they had never been told quite 
who he was or where he had come from. The sun 
had burned his skin dark and his hair light, till 
he was golden in the road, and they freely consid- 
ered his walking by again, as if they could take 
his life up into their fingers with their sewing and 
sew it or snip it on their laps. They always went 
back to saying that at any rate he caught enormous 
fish wherever he fished in the river, and always 
had a long wet thing slung over his wrist when he 
went by, ugh! One old lady thought he was a 
Gipsy and had called “Gipsy!” after him when he 
went by her front porch once too often. One lady 
said she did not care what he was or if she ever 
knew what he was, and whether he lived or died 
it was all the same to her. But the third old lady 
had books, though she was the one that was a little 
crazy, and she waited till the others had done and 
then explained that Floyd had the blood of a 
Natchez Indian, though the Natchez might be 
supposed to be all gone, massacred. The Natchez, 
she said— and she nodded toward her books, “The 
Queen’s Library,” high on the shelf-were the 
people from the lost Atlantis, had they heard of 



2o8 The Wide Net 

lhat? and took their pride in the escape from that 
flood, when the island went under. And there was 
something all Indians knew, about never letting 
the last spark of fire go out. What did the other 
ladies think of that? 

They were shocked. They had thought all the 
time he was really the bastard of one of the old 
checker-players, that had been let grow up away 
in the woods until he got big enough to come back 
and make trouble. They said he was half-wild like 
one family they could name, and half of the time 
he did not know what he was doing, like another 
family. All in his own right he could scent coming 
things like an animal and in some of his ways, 
just like all men, he was something of an animal. 
But they said it was the way he was. 

“Why don’t you run after him?”— “Now you 
won’t love him any more.” 

Jenny wondered what more love would be like. 
'I’hen of course she knew. More love would be 
qxiiet. She would never be so quiet as she wished 
until she was quiet with her love. In the center of 
everything, in the center of thunder, there was a 
precious piece of quiet, and into quiet her love 
would go. The Landing was filled with clangor, it 
seemed to her, until her love was filled with quiet. 
It seemed to her that she had been the same as in 
many places in the world, traveling and traveling, 
always with quiet to give. It had been enough to 



At the Landing 209 

make her desperate in her heart, the long search 
for Billy Floyd to give quiet to. 

But if Floyd had a search, what was it? 

She was holding the amber beads they used to 
give her mother to play with. She looked at the 
lump of amber, and looked through to its core. 
Nobody could ever know about the difEerence be- 
tween the radiance that was the surface and the 
radiance that was inside. There were the two 
worlds. There was no way at all to put a finger 
on the center of light. And if there were a moun- 
tain, the cloud over it could not touch its heart 
when it traveled over, and if there were an island 
out in the sea, the waves at its shore would never 
come over the place in the middle of the island. 
She looked in her very dreams at Floyd who had 
such clear eyes shining at her, and knew his heart 
lay clearer still, safe and deep in his innocence, 
safe and away from the outside, deeper than quiet. 
What she remembered was that when her hand 
started out to touch him in delight, he smiled and 
turned away— not from her, but toward some- 
thing. . . . 

Was it toward one thing, toward some one thing 
alone? 

But it was when love was of the one for the one, 
that it seemed to hold all that was multitudinous 
and nothing was single any more. She had one love 
and that was all, but she dreamed that she lined 



210 


The Wide Net 

up on both sides of the road to see her love come 
by in a procession. She herself was more people 
than there were people in The Landing, and her 
love was enough to pass through the whole night, 
never lifting the same face. 

It was July when Jenny left The Landing. The 
grass was tall and gently ticking between the tracks 
of the road. The stupor of air, the quiet of the 
river that now went behind a veil, the sheen of 
heat and the gray sheen of summering trees, and 
the silence of day and night seemed all to touch, to 
bathe and administer to The Landing. The little 
town took a languor and a kind of beauty from the 
treatment of time and place. It stretched and 
swooned, and when two growing boys knelt in the 
road and caught the sun rays in a bit of glass and 
got fire, they seemed to tease a sleeper, and when 
they said “Hooray!” they sounded like adventur- 
ers in a dream. 

Pears lying on the ground warmed and soured, 
bees gathered at the figs, birds put their little 
holes of possession in each single fruit in the world 
that they could fly to. The scent of lilies rolled 
sweetly from their heavy cornucopias and trickled 
down by shady paths to fill the golden air of the 
valley. The mourning dove called its three notes, 
kept its short silence— which was its mourning?— 
and called three more. 



211 


At the Landing 

Jenny had known the most when she knew 
Floyd rode the horse in the field of butterflies 
while she was still; and she had known something 
when she watched him cook the meat and had 
eaten it for him under his eye; and now once 
more, in the dream of July, she knew very little, 
she was lost in wonder again. If she could find him 
now, or even find the place where he had last 
passed through, she would gain the next wisdom. 
It was a following after, now— it was too late to 
find any way alone. 

The sun was going down when she went. The 
red eyes of the altheas were closing, and the liz- 
ards ran on the wall. The last lily buds hung 
green and glittering, pendulant in the heat. The 
crape-myrtle trees were beginning to fill with light 
for they drank the last of it every day, and gave 
off their white and flame in the evening that filled 
with the throb of cicadas. There was an old 
mimosa closing in the ravine— the ancient fern, 
as old as life, the tree that shrank from the touch, 
grotesque in its tenderness. All nearness and dark- 
ness affected it, even clouds going by, but for 
Jenny that left it no tree ever gave such allure- 
ment of fragrance anywhere. 

She looked behind her for the last time as she 
went down under the trees. As if it were made of 
shells and pearls and treasures from the sea, die 
house glinted in the sunset, tinted with the drops 



212 


The Wide Net 


of light that seemed to fall slowly through the 
vaguely stirring leaves. Tenderly as seaweed the 
long moss swayed. The chimney branched like 
coral in the upper blue. 

Then green branches closed it over, and with 
her next step trumpet and muscadine vines and 
the great big-leaved vines made pillars about the 
trunks of the trees and arches and buttresses all 
among them. Passion flowers bloomed with their 
white and purple rays about tier shoulders and 
under her feet. She walked on into the streaming 
hot shade of the wilderness, and put out her 
hands between the hanging vines. She feared the 
snakes in the sudden cool. Like thousands of silver 
bells the frogs rang her through the swamp, which 
then closed behind her. 

All at once the whole open sky could be seen— 
she had come to the river. A quiet fire burned on 
the bluff and moving as far outward as she could 
see was the cold blur of water. A great spiraled net 
lay on its side and its circles twinkled faintly on 
the sky. Veil behind veil of long drying nets hung 
on 'all sides, dropping softly and blue-colored in 
the low wind and the place was folded in bv them. 
All things, river, sky, fire, and air, seemed the 
same color, the color that is seen behind the closed 
eyelids, the color of day when vision and despair 
are the same thing. 

Some fishermen came around her and when she 



At the Landing 213 

named Billy Floyd they nodded their heads. They 
said, what with the rains, they waited for the rac- 
ing of the waters to slow down, but that he went 
out on them. They said he was out on them now, 
but would come back to the camp, if he did not 
turn over and drown first. She asked the fishermen 
to let her wait there with them, since it was to 
them that he would return. They said it did not 
matter to them how long she waited, or where. 

She stood by the nets. A little distance away men 
and women were cooking and eating and she 
smelled the fish and the wild meat. The river went 
by immeasurable under the sky, moving and dimly 
catching and snagging itself, freeing itself without 
effort, heavy with its great waves of drift, deep 
with stirring fish. 

But after a certain length of time, the men that 
had been throwing knives at the tree by the last 
light put her inside a grounded houseboat on the 
plank of which chickens were standing. The wil- 
low branches hung down over and dragged softly 
back and forth across the roof. There were noises 
and fires all around. There were pigs in the wood. 

One by one the men came in to her. She actually 
spoke to the first one that entered between the doz- 
ing chickens, for now she could speak to every- 
one, in a vague stir of welcome or in the humility 
that moved now deep in her spirit. About them 
all and closer to them than their own breath was 



214 The Wide Net 

the smell of trees that had bled to the knives they 
wore. 

When she called out, she did not call any name; 
it was a cry with a rising sound, as if she said “Go 
back,” or asked a question, and then at the last 
protested. A rude laugh covered her cry, and some- 
how both the harsh human sounds could easily 
have been heard as rejoicing, going out over the 
river in the dark night. By the fire, little boys were 
slapped crossly by their mothers— as if they knew 
that the original smile now crossed Jenny’s face, 
and hung there no matter what was done to her, 
like a bit of color that kindles in the sky after the 
light has gone. 

“Is she asleep? Is she in a spell? Or is she dead?” 
asked a little old bright-eyed woman who went 
and looked in the door, and crept up to the now 
meditating men outside. She was so precise in her 
question that she even held up three rheumatic 
fingers when she asked. 

“She’s waiting for Billy Floyd,” they said. 

The old woman nodded, and nodded out to the 
flowing river, with the firelight following her face 
and showing its dignity. The younger boys sepa- 
rated and took their turns throwing knives with a 
dull pit at the tree.